Inclusive Language in Standards

Inclusive Language in Standards Development

Is it Him, Her, or They?

Use of language is critical for proper interpretation of document. Standards are meant to be read and used by a broad range of people from all over the world. References to people should also be standardized. How a standard refers to a person will determine whether the reader can see themselves performing those same actions.

Tricky Language

‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ have been used widely in technology fields for years to refer to one process that controls another. This language has has negative and harmful meanings for many. The technology industry is moving to remove Master/Slave and similar language and continues to discuss how to better describe and use terms to describe complex systems and processes. [1] [2]

Other terms may seem traditional and non-exclusionary. But these terms act to remind participants that roles are to be filled by specific people or genders. When a person of another gender then fills that role, they are ‘out of the ordinary’ or an exception. An example is use of the title ‘Chairman’ as someone that leads a group. This continues to be debated, but with the suffix being ‘man’ it suggests that the default is a man. [3] Other examples are spokesman, policeman, fisherman, craftsman, statesman. When those are filled by someone other than a man, in some cases a modifier is added – women chairman – and in others the term may be revised to something more neutral such as police officer.

Inclusive Approaches

By making use of inclusive language, codes and standards writers can be inclusive of all groups of people, making the document more accessible and valuable for their use. Lexico, a collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press (OUP) suggests that when there is “a choice between a word which specifies a person’s gender and a word which doesn’t” [4] to use the neutral choice unless the gender is relevant to the context of the document. For example, Chair or Chairperson would be used instead of Chairman and Police Officer used instead of Policeman.

When using pronouns (e.g. him, her, they), consider instead using the title of the person referred to – technician, electrician, inspector – this will add additional context and avoid suggestions of gender.  

Use of ‘they’ in place of a gendered pronoun has increased; however, some object to its use due to its description in grammar guides as used to refer to more than one person, not as a singular. It’s noted by Lexico and others that use of ‘they’ to refer to the singular was used in the 16th century and had simply faded over time. Use of ‘they’ to refer to the singular is therefore a revival and not a new use. [5]

Summary

There’s still a long road ahead in evaluating the words we use in standards and seeking terms that are inclusive with the widest possible application. The first step is having open and frank discussions on the meaning of words and how their use can create artificial barriers and seeking a road forward that ensures all readers and participants in standards feel that the terms apply to them.

Want to work on identifying roads forward for inclusion in standards [https://womeninstandards.org/inclusion-in-standards/]? Join the Women in Standards committee on inclusion, click here to learn more and to sign up. [https://womeninstandards.org/standing-committees/] [1] https://www.wired.com/story/tech-confronts-use-labels-master-slave/

[2] https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8x7akv/masterslave-terminology-was-removed-from-python-programming-language

[3] https://theconversation.com/pull-up-a-chair-we-need-to-talk-about-sexist-language-at-work-31869

[4] https://www.lexico.com/grammar/the-language-of-gender

[5] https://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/his_her_their_they_singular_plural.htm

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