Gender Neutral Language

One way to create an inclusive space, to not impose gender where it is not needed, is through using gender neutral language. This might involve changing some things you’ve been saying for a long time. It takes paying attention and practice. But it gets easier! Below are some examples of ways to be more inclusive people’s identities.

Why does this matter? Because the language you use has a direct impact on kids’ behaviors. This is illustrated by a study [1] in which preschool teachers either used gender-neutral language or used gendered language (e.g. said “Boys and Girls”). Children in the gendered language group engaged in less other-gender play (i.e. boys playing with girls) and were more likely to invoke gender stereotypes relative to the gender-neutral language group. Also, the language you use shows a lot about how you feel about a topic and informs your kids’ views later. 

If using “they” in the singular is new to you, it might sound funny. That’s OK. You’ll get used to it with some practice. (Here is a handy table with examples of how to conjugate they and here is a handy exercise for practicing!) Using “they” when talking about a person, or a squirrel in the park, or a teddy bear is a way to not assume anything about their genders. Here is another great family-inclusive infographic.

 

While you might have learned that it is grammatically incorrect, language is constantly changing and there is historical precedence for using they in the singular [3]. It just went out of style, so bring it back! Also, there are a large number of people using ‘they’ as a pronoun and, therefore, it’s a good idea to get comfortable with it! For example, “Look at that person, what are they doing over there?” or “What does that squirrel have in their hands?”

Once you get the hang of it, they is quite handy and really quite elegant.

For example, so much nicer than saying "he or she"! Other options include using people's names or occupations (e.g. the doctor) instead of pronouns. 

Similar language movements are occurring in languages other than English. In particular, use of 'x' to replace a/o in Spanish has gained increased in use as a way to make it gender-neutral: for example Latinx (pronounced Latinix) to replace Latina/o [4].

A note on honorifics. If you use honorifics to show respect to elders, this can be a challenging one. We don’t claim to know the answers and are open to suggestions. “Mx.” (pronounced “Mix”) is a relatively new title that was recently added to the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries [5]. Some people with non-binary genders use the title and it can also be used as a gender-neutral honorific.

Language References

1. Hilliard and Liben, Differing Levels of Gender Salience in Preschool Classrooms: Effects on Children’s Gender Attitudes and Intergroup Bias, Child Development, 81(6); 1787–1798, 2010.

2. https://maxbarry.com/2011/07/08/news.html

3. http://www.npr.org/2016/01/13/462906419/everyone-uses-singular-they-whether-they-realize-it-or-not

4. http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/why-we-say-latinx-trans-gender-non-conforming-people-explain 

5. http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/mx-gender-neutral-title

These are recommendations to think about incorporating into your daily speech. This is not to say that you should never use he, girl, mom, man, etc. so much as to encourage you think about the words you use and to mix it up. Be aware of how often we assume a male gender [2]. Do you need to use a gendered word or will a gender-neutral word do just as well? Especially when you are talking about someone you don’t know. It’s about not assuming people’s pronouns or family structure.

It's about not assuming you know what pronouns someone uses for themselves just by looking at them. Ask! It might feel a little awkward if you aren’t used to it, but with a little practice, you will get used to it. Just say, “what pronouns do you use?” It's also about not assuming people's family structure (e.g. mom and dad).