He/She/It: Do Pronouns Make a Difference?

Gender in Academic Translation

 A gender neutral sign accompanied by the word 'everyone' is glued onto toilet door

Language plays a key role in our decision-making processes, assessments and behaviours, and also has the ability to shape our cognitive thinking.This is especially true when it comes to gender. As more and more people identify as neither male nor female, the importance of following gender guidelines and writing in a gender-neutral, generic way, becomes evermore pressing.

For me as an academic editor, using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ wherever possible helps avoid reinforcing either a male bias or binary gender bias. Where this isn’t possible, for instance, when referring to a singular subject, I try and use a gender-neutral alternative.

To define (or redefine) these gender guidelines, it’s important to look at the following questions: Does gendered language still influence society today? Does male-biased language cause tangible harm? What are the possible solutions? As academics, it is incredibly important to consider, debate, and discuss these questions, in order to ensure that our work is accessible to the widest possible audience.

1.      Does gendered language still influence society?

Gendered language has probably been with us since the dawn of time, but it was only in 1827 that ‘he’ was first used in English law with the intention that the pronoun would refer to people of all genders. From that point on, the masculine form became the automatic norm, a development that cemented and reflected the existing gender inequality in society. The masculine pronoun was more and more seen as normal and the feminine form as derivative and therefore less important. Moreover, the male form of a word is considered the unmarked default, implying that women and other genders are second class; they are denied the language to tell their stories.

Recently, the situation has started to change. Generally, ‘he’ is no longer seen as referring to all genders, and gender-neutral nouns—such as ‘police officer’ instead of ‘police man’ or ‘woman’—have become more common.

Nonetheless, gendered sexually discriminatory language is still trivialised. Such language makes the person who is the target of the discrimination feel invisible, silenced, and robbed of the agency to tell their stories.The #metoo and #timesup campaigns are particularly interesting from this perspective. These campaigns often employ a rhetoric of ‘reclaiming the narrative’ and ‘speaking up,’ suggesting that previously their voices had been lost or silenced.

Does gendered language still exist and influence our society? Yes. But why does it matter? And how does it affect academic writing?

2.      Does male-biased language cause harm?

One might imagine that male-biased language has no bearing on society, and that it is simply the by-product of archaic thinking. However, this is far from the truth.

In the legal realm, gendered language can have a real impact and serious consequences on individual lives.On the one hand, studies have found that legislation written using gender-neutral language produces clearer and less ambiguous laws that benefit both genders. On the other, a 1992 study by Hamilton, Hunter and Sharon, found that jury verdicts in certain trials can be swayed based on the use of gender.The same study also found that gendered legal concepts like ‘reasonable man’ can also influence the public’s view.

The default use of masculine terminology in describing professions like professors, judges, and doctors can alienate women from these high-powered positions; gendered language causes women to struggle to visualise themselves in these roles. A classic 1973 study showed that only 5% of women applied for traditionally masculine jobs when male-biased language is used to advertise them, reinforcing the nearly-impregnable glass ceiling.

Society as a whole, and not only women, suffers from this unequal access to employment. Research shows that when the gender gap closes, the country’s GDP increases by 12%.

The idea that using masculine language to refer to traditionally male roles reinforces traditional gender roles and the exclusion of certain groups is particularly relevant to us in the academic world. It is no surprise that the academic world can often be seen as exclusive and male dominated. Therefore, it is essential that we open the doors more widely and avoid using language that could discourage certain groups from joining in the academic debate.

3.      Combatting language-based discrimination

One possible solution is to follow the example set by Sweden, which introduced the gender-neutral pronoun hen. This neologism is designed to be used when the gender of the speaker is unknown, irrelevant, or identified as neither male nor female. The use of hen has been debated since the 1960s, and was first adopted by the Swedish LBGT community as a way of welcoming people of all genders; the word entered common usage around 2010. By 2015, only one out of 190 respondents was unfamiliar with hen, testifying to its successful integration into the language. According to respondents, hen was viewed as the pronoun entailing the least male and cisgender bias.

However, this solution seems idealistic for English. Over 80 gender-neutral English pronouns have been suggested, and none have stuck. Perhaps because of the special role pronouns play in English, without strong public engagement and backing, it is unlikely that a new pronoun would be successful. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether a new pronoun would actually solve all the problems surrounding gendered language.

As language and gender identities continue to evolve, perhaps we need to revisit and discuss our style guidelines to ensure we continue to be as inclusive as possible. Ultimately, academia flourishes when as many voices as possible contribute to the debate. It is essential that we limit exclusion as much as possible, including making sure to write in a gender-neutral manner.

Start editing my paper!