Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gender free writing

Gender free writing is a hot topic these days. The English language is androcentric because for centuries it has been evolving in a society dominated by men. Men made the decisions and the laws; they were in charge of the government, the work force, education and religion. They shaped the course of history and were the subjects of history with relatively few exceptions.

Sex versus gender identification has developed through the onset of women’s studies classes and the continuing force of feminism. There is a difference between an individual’s sex (biological) and the person’s gender (a social construction based on sex). Our understanding of “to be a man” is different than “to be a male.” To be a male denotes having a chromosomal makeup of X and Y while females have only X. To be a man is to exhibit socially desirable traits usually associated with males (trust, strength, ability to get the job done, powerful, etc.). Are not these traits also desirable in the female of the species?

Sexism in the English language may be difficult to recognize because it is so embedded in our speech. Advocates of gender-neutral language are making an impact that started most recently in the business environment. More women perform jobs formerly thought as being handled only by the males of the species (airplane captain, ranch foreperson, automobile designer). “Man” is reverting into the context of a sexual male and not a generic word for mankind or humans.

What does it mean to have a gender-neutral language? Gender-neutral terms apply to “someone” and “anyone” versus just to a woman or a man. Continuing to use sexist language supports bias and implies irrelevant gender classification and negative stereotypes. Thinking only women can be nurses and only men can be electricians is outmoded.

Business manuals and job titles are pushing this change. “Best man for the job,” “workmen,” “waitress” and “freshman” are being replaced by “best person for the job,” “workers,” “server” and “first year student.” Instead of “The programmer should use his laptop for…” try using “The programmer should use a laptop until the end of the month.” Instead of “Men must store their tools in their lockers,” substitute “Workers must store their tools in their lockers."

For pronoun use, “s/he” is going out of favor. Instead, alternate “he” and “she” throughout the article or manual. An author may choose to use a single pronoun throughout but should then include a disclaimer stating that the article is intended to be gender neutral.

  • Use plural nouns
  • Substitute one, you or us
  • Write Dear Professor, Dear Editor, or Dear Loren Thames instead of Dear Sir or Madam
  • Do not stereotype roles or jobs
  • Research in-house guidelines and follow them
  • Edit your work specifically for gender bias

I can hear you saying “But…” If your novel is set in an earlier time, use the common practice for pronouns and language that matches the era and the locale of your work.


Mary Jane Honegger said...

Hey Norm, you offered some good advice for writers, but let me give you something to chew on: We can make these small changes, but I don't believe there will ever be true equality for women because sexism is inherent in our language - the androcentricity is built-in. The word woman has a "man" in it; the word women has "men" in it; the word she has a "he" in it; and the word her has a "he" in it. The only redeeming fact is that there is a "ma" in the word man. And DON'T EVEN get me started on the word HIStory!!

I doubt you'll have much in the way of rebuttal - don't forget - we know what you call the females of your species. Hope I don't sound too rabid - you just touched one of my HOT TOPICS! You're still my favorite guy blogger!

Norm de Ploom said...

Ooooh-kay. :-) In today's civilized societies I agree there is, for the main, juxtapositioning for equality in most aspects of life usually not without discord. Societies over the millennia have shown a few where women dominated. Many societies are comfortable with men and women have differing responsibilities. Our modern society is evolving but I don't think you or I will live to see what either of us calls a gender neutral society and nnever until men gestate babies and wear high heels.