By Lena Richter
Info: The terms gender-neutral, -inclusive and -sensitive language are often used interchangeably and all aim at avoiding gender biases. In this article, a difference is made between gender-neutral language (using general terms, e.g. humankind) and gender-specific terms (e.g. she/he/they).
A while ago, I stumbled upon the fact that the male form ‘promovendus’ was automatically used as a job title on my Radboud profile page instead of a neutral term or the female form ‘promovenda’. Coming from Germany, where gender-sensitive language is relatively common, it surprised me to see that this was less the case in the Netherlands. Several weeks of emailing later, my enquiry regarding the male job title, was passed on to the right person who kindly adapted my function title to ‘promovenda’; commenting that he knew that this was only an ad-hoc solution.
First of all, the general opinion would probably be very different if we would turn the status quo around by applying only female terms as the generic form. In 2013, the University of Leipzig did just that and decided to use the ‘generisches feminimum’ [generic feminine] in their constitution. Similarly, at the Radboud University, linguistic professor Marc van Oostendorp suggested using only the pronoun ‘zij’ (she). Both (thought) experiments provoked numerous negative reactions (Hentsch, 2014). Yet, the same outcry is missing when it comes to the everyday use of male forms, which have become so normalised and hegemonised that we barely notice and question them.
Nevertheless, the opinions about gender-biased language are changing. More and more students and employees are advocating for paying more attention to gender-sensitive language. Pronouns are being added to emails and on LinkedIn, and Zoom, letters are being formulated in neutral ways, job positions are explicitly advertised for all genders, and biased words such as ‘mankind’ are being replaced with equivalents like ‘humankind’. These developments suggest that the general opinion is shifting, but does it even matter if the majority is not in favour of gender-sensitive language?
We often assume that policy decisions are fairest when taken in a democratic, majority-based way. This idea can be questioned when it comes to topics that concern particular parts of society. Of course, we must consider the voices of everyone, but the focus should lie on those that are directly disadvantaged. Male PhD researchers are less concerned because their title, ‘promovendus’, would remain ‘promovendus’. Likewise, many women do feel included in titles such as ‘docent’ [teacher], or ‘directeur’ [director]. Even more, they consciously might not want to draw specific attention to them being female. It goes without saying that this is absolutely fine.
However, those who cannot find themselves with the male, and supposedly generic form, should have the choice to opt for alternatives. This could be set in practice by favouring neutral terms, such as ‘leerkracht’ [teacher] or ‘leidingegevende’ [head of…]; plural terms, or by providing everyone with the possibility to choose between male, female, and nonbinary job titles. In the end, while male forms might be intended to be generic, a male bias exists (Gygax, 2008). We tend to think about men when hearing the generic masculine, as studies conducted by the Max Planck and Donders Institute in Nijmegen have confirmed (ter Bekke, 2021).
‘Not ready for it yet’
Secondly, the debate is often brushed aside as some modern fad. Yet, feminists have been calling for more attention towards language biases since the ’70s. This led to some Anglophone institutions providing guidelines for ‘non-sexist’ language and implementing laws that used the singular pronoun ‘they’ (which already emerged in the 14th c.) (Hord, 2016). Fifty years later we still discuss if language reforms are going too far and if they are feasible. More so, like a broken record we continue to repeat that it is a natural part of every language that vocabulary and grammar are constantly evolving. In this light, ‘not ready for it yet’ seems questionable. Nonetheless, the statement that many are ‘not ready for it yet’ holds a germ of truth. Especially in the Dutch context, it is less common to use gender-sensitive language than it is in many other languages (Geurts, 2020). Checking our language use for biases is an ongoing learning process and a question of habituation.
At the same time, the statement ‘not ready for it yet’ is based on several problematic assumptions. It implies that people are lagging behind in thinking and will, as time goes by, realise that gender-sensitive language should be applied. Yet, valid and informed concerns should not be belittled. For instance, it would be very valuable to have a constructive discussion on whether or not gender-specific language reinforces sharp gender categories by emphasizing different gender identities (Hord, 2016). In this context, the question emerges if reducing, not expanding, our terms and pronouns works better in countering language biases. Indeed, languages that do not have a grammatical gender and use general pronouns and categories succeed better in going beyond the binary male-female thinking that is often underlying Dutch and other languages. However, for that, truly neutral – not just male-equals-neutral – terms are needed.
Instead of claiming that society is not ready for it, and by that, shutting down further discussion, we should rather be asking why people are not ready for it and how we can contribute to making students and employees feel more ready. One evident answer to the latter question is to make the importance of gender-sensitive language clearer to everyone. Language matters and the categories we use are constructed and loaded. University positions have been historically held by (mainly white, abled, heterosexual, wealthy, cis) men. In that sense, language can be seen as a relic of historical male-centeredness. Today universities have become more diverse, including different gender identities. Instead of using only male terms, gender-sensitive language could help to make this new reality visible.
When it comes to job terms, in- and outside the university, the terminology is particularly important because it might make children and teenagers who are about to choose a job feel limited in their potential job choices (Vervecken & Hannover, 2015). For instance, when hearing ‘de onderwijsdirecteur’ [director of education] without mentioning a name, many tend to think about a man. A potential female role model is often overlooked but would be rendered visible when saying ‘directrice’. Extending our language enlarges our thinking on gender because it makes us aware that other gender identities exist and challenges the assumption that some jobs are limited to a specific gender. Therefore, gender-sensitive language is not just symbolic but has tangible consequences.
‘We cannot force them’
Thirdly, in a country where liberty of choice is considered one of the core values, people often cringe when it comes to obligatory implementations. Yet, what is happening at the moment is not a real choice either. It is rather a passive enforcement of the male category as a supposedly generic form, as we can see with the male job titles. Having said that, the implementation of gender-sensitive language is not about forcing people to use gender-sensitive language but about offering the choice to use it if wanted, i.e. make university employees choose the gender term they most identify with.
While universities cannot force students and employees to use gender-sensitive language, they can stimulate people to do so and lead by example. Recalling the first time we took an exam on gender as anthropology students, some of us were nagging about the points of deduction we got when we did not write in gender-sensitive language. Looking back, I am grateful for this extra push. Providing all students and employees with the tools and knowledge to express themselves in gender-sensitive language should not be restricted to courses on gender. The whole university can and should play a more proactive and exemplary role. For instance, by paying even more attention to gender-neutral language in their own communication (think about ‘Dear all’ instead of ‘Dear Sir/Madam’), by normalizing different pronouns and by avoiding male biases in job titles.
On a final note, gender-specific categories (e.g. promovenda/promovendus) are often no perfect solution either, as they exclude nonbinary identities. Instead of gender-specific categories, it might be better to create completely new and real neutral categories. This has already been done in other languages, such as the Swedish ‘hen’ instead of ‘han’/‘hon’ [he/she], the Spanish neologism ‘todes’ instead of ‘todos’ or ‘todas’, or the gender-neutral pronoun ‘ri’ (Esperanto). In this respect, universities could be spaces to discuss and creatively think about ways to free our language use from biases. Universities have the potential to contribute to creative solutions that move beyond the current singular or, at most, binary thinking. By doing so universities, like the Radboud University, can become pioneers and not only followers in matters of gender-sensitive language.
This article has been enriched by exchanging with both, those who agree and those who (partly) disagree on gender-sensitive language. In particular, I would like to thank Fausta Noreikaitė and Kyra-Lianne Samuels from Raffia magazine for the great collaboration.
Information on the author
Lena Richter (she/her) is a PhD researcher at the Department of Islam Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. She has a background in Anthropology and Migration Studies and is interested in intersectional feminism. Based between the Netherlands, Germany, and Morocco, her research focuses on nonreligious activism in Morocco and among the Moroccan diaspora in Europe.
ter Bekke, M. (2021). How gender-neutral is language? Research shows that with supposedly neutral terms we still automatically think of men. Donders Wonders. Accessed 06.07.2021. https://blog.donders.ru.nl/?p=13060&lang=en.
Geurts, A. P.H. (2020). Why Gender-Neutral Language is Hard for Speakers of Dutch. Radboud Recharge. Accessed 06.07.2021. https://www.ru.nl/@1252471/why-gender-neutral-language-hard-speakers-dutch/.
Gygax, P., Gabriel, U., Sarrasin, O., Oakhill, J., & Garnham, A. (2008). Generically intended, but specifically interpreted: When beauticians, musicians, and mechanics are all men. Language and cognitive processes, 23(3), 464-485.
Hentsch, F. (2014). Heftige Reaktionen auf die weibliche Form. https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/universitaet-leipzig-heftige-reaktionen-auf-die-weibliche.680.de.html?dram:article_id=294077
Hord, L. C. (2016). Bucking the linguistic binary: Gender neutral language in English, Swedish, French, and German. Western Papers in Linguistics, 3(1).
Oostendorp, M. (2021). Weg met hij, leve zij. Neerlandistiek online tijdschrift voor taal- en letterkunde. Accessed 06.07.2021. https://neerlandistiek.nl/2021/05/weg-met-hij-leve-zij/.