What is the default gender that can be used to refer to all people? Should there be one? That question took center stage this month as we saw Germany face this issue head on when a group of lawmakers introduced legislation that used exclusively feminine pronouns when referring to people.
In Germany, generally accepted practice has been to use the masculine form of a word as the default and so, this proposal raised more than a few concerns. In our August article entitled Inclusive Language in Standards Development, it’s noted that the language used “will determine whether the reader can see themselves performing those same actions.” In cases where the masculine is used as the default and an individual does not identify as male, it can have the negative affect of discouraging individuals from pursuing or seeing themselves in those roles.
Similar proposals are popping up around the world including the United States where just this month the Westlake, Ohio Charter Review Commission submitted a proposal to remove gender-specific language from the city’s charter. The charter currently refers as the default to the masculine form of all positions. The proposal would revise this language to be gender neutral.
How can standards organizations get involved in ensuring their staff and members can see themselves performing the roles and activities described in organization policies and procedures? You guessed it, there is now a shift in corporate documentation to move away from gendered terms and towards neutral vernacular. Use of ‘they’ has risen in popularity as an alternative to ‘he’ or ‘her’ as well as the neutral form of roles and job titles such as ‘police officer’ to replace ‘policeman.’
When embarking on your own gender-inclusive journey, consider forming a diversity task force (“Diversity Superstars” perhaps?). This could include only staff, a mix of staff and members, and could also include external consultants and experts with specialized diversity and inclusion training.
Seek out individuals from a broad range of experiences, regional and cultural backgrounds, genders, and positions in the organization from entry level all the way up to executive leadership to sit on the task force. When holding meetings, create a space that is safe from judgement. This will allow different groups to share why certain language choices cause concern or make them feel excluded and seek out language that will incorporate the diverse ecosystem you are seeking to create.
And as a final note, if you serve as a leader or manager for others, looking at your personal communications and seeking changes is also beneficial. Consider the language you use, the method of communication, and even the details you provide. Much of our personal communication style is developed through our own experiences. If we have not encountered a wide variety of cultures and peoples, we may find ourselves using language we didn’t realize was offensive. Be open to feedback from others and seek out resources and training to enhance and improve your communication style.
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