Gender-neutral terms: Necessary practice or just overkill?


screenbean_questionCertain terms may be considered gender-biased in nature—mankind, manpower, right-hand man—but I prefer to look at these terms as genderless. These words have been used for centuries and convey an idea, not a bias. (And I pause to cringe about the hate mail from ultra-feminists or corrections from linguists that may soon come my way…)

I have always been of the mindset that behavior speaks more than words, so it perturbs me when language is blatantly revised based on who is present in the room. Two conversations in the past week reaffirmed this pet peeve of mine:

1. I hypothetically described myself as so-and-so’s right-hand man, which was quickly corrected by an individual to “you mean you would be their right-hand girl”.

2. During a small meeting, one person adjusted their sentence because I was in the room, “Now that we have enough manpower—or womanpower….”

In both situations, I quickly pointed out that there is no need to make these terms so-called “politically correct” when conversing with me. I have been trying to figure out for several days what really bothers me about people stopping a conversation to modify my own use of a subjective, male-gendered phrase or to interject another gender-biased word into a sentence:

• It calls attention to the fact that there is a woman in the room.

• It’s not necessary to derail a conversation to point out this fact. For most jobs, both men and women are highly qualified, and gender is not an issue with respect to job requirements.

• I also wonder if people who feel compelled to modify such terms are insecure about working with the opposite sex, overly conscious about being perceived as insensitive or worried about getting in trouble with human resources.

Words of advice: If you are really concerned, please use gender-neutral terms (e.g., humankind) consistently in every conversation. The real issue is that everyone needs to be sensitive to the gender disparities that do exist in the workforce—equal work pay, need for flexible schedules, family obligations, etc. Equal treatment and solid mentorship are a better reflection of your true concern for gender issues and not how you sound from a passerby’s perspective.

**Discussion Point: Is the use of gender-neutral terms necessary or does it hide the real underlying gender issues?**

4 thoughts on “Gender-neutral terms: Necessary practice or just overkill?

  1. elkement says:

    And I thought we only have this ‘issue’ in German speaking countries! Currently German fairy tales are re-written – replacing ancient politically non-correct terms with non-offending ones.

    I consider it unnecessary as these politically correct German phrases could not used in spoken language as we either mention male and female version both explicitly – as your ‘mankind and womenkind’ or (worse) an artifical male+female version is used: In German most female nouns are built by adding the suffix -in, plural -innen. So e.g. teachers (male and female) are: Lehrer und Lehrerinnen. Now the modern condensed version of that is: LehrerInnen. Mind the capital I – that’s essential. Sometimes people even try to speak the capital I by adding a short break: Lehrer-Innen.

    Or -in is added to academic titles. I was not pleased by having been announced as Dr.-in (-in in superscript) once.

    I totally agree with you!

  2. Ksenia says:

    I agree with what you said, but on the other hand, language shapes thought. There are many studies showing that differences in languages may effect differences in cognition. I think it would be nice if the gendered words were slowly phased out of use.

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