Most of us were taught in elementary school that it’s not only permissible but also grammatically correct to refer to hypothetical people as “he” and “him” in writing and speech. It’s still grammatically correct, but what stereotypes and assumptions about gender are you reinforcing with your linguistic choices? In this article, I’ll talk about why gender-neutral and woman-focused language is an important aspect of contemporary writing and suggest a few tactics for avoiding the hypothetical “he” and other assumption-driven language.
The Universal “He”
There are two categories of problematic linguistic choices that I’d like to look at in this blog post: the universal “he” and phrases that include hidden assumptions about gender.
I don’t know about you, but when I was in first or second grade, I learned that if you were talking about a hypothetical person, or someone whose gender was unknown to you, “he” was the grammatically correct option. For example:
Each student should eat his gummy bears.
This was quickly followed by a lesson about a similar use of the word “man” to mean person, and “mankind” to mean people, like, for example, the immortal words of Neil Armstrong:
One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.
The use of “he” and “man” as supposed gender-neutral terms assume maleness as a sort of default gender option for people in general, essentially removing anyone who isn’t male from the discussion. I’ll come back to exactly why this is so problematic in a minute, after covering…
In addition to the universal “he,” there’s a class of language that assumes that certain things or people are simply going to be male. When writing about business, this can be an especially salient problem, as most of the business world is structured along a hierarchy with someone like a CFO or president at the top, and gender assumptions and positions of power are closely related.
Language that carries assumptions about gender includes things like:
Tell your top marketing guy I need those proofs by Tuesday.
If your CEO is hard to get in touch with, try scheduling an appointment with him.
This is a cocktail party for business executives and their wives. (Added bonus for heterosexism!)
As you can see, these examples all carry within them the idea that anyone at the top of the business structure is going to be a man.
Language Reflects and Reinforces Assumptions
So why is this a problem? There are tons of men in business, aren’t there? Well, yes, there are tons of men in business. However, there are also plenty of women at the top of the food chain in the business world.
The problem with using language like the universal he, or always using a male CEO to demonstrate an example in your writing, is that language reflects and reinforces assumptions that we as a society hold about gender. Without getting too deep into linguistic philosophy (but check out the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis if you’re interested), the idea is that the way we talk about things influences the way we think about them.
The National Council of Teachers of English puts this quite succinctly in their guide to gender-fair language, where they state, “Word choices often reflect unconscious assumptions about gender roles. As professionals, we all need to examine our language to reduce or eliminate choices that silence, stereotype, or constrain others.”
Essentially, then, when a writer uses a hypothetical male CEO in any given example, it reflects the socially derived idea that CEOs are men, while simultaneously reinforcing that idea by providing an example of yet another male CEO. While one example certainly isn’t going to convince you that there are no female CEOs in the world, it’s a cyclical process, and the results are cumulative. Meaning, in other words, that the more people do it, the worse the problem gets.
A Little Bit of Linguistic Philosophy
Don’t worry; the philosophy goes back to concrete issues! So, all of that reflecting and reinforcing has a number of specific effects when it comes to gender, and especially women. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great primer on feminist philosophy of language that highlights the following issues:
- The universal “he” and assumptions about maleness contribute to the invisibility of women, especially in high-powered fields like business, medicine, and science that are already traditionally male-dominated.
- These language choices reinforce maleness as the norm. This is related to the invisibility issue, and it also means that women in these fields then begin to seem abnormal, or like they don’t belong.
- They also contribute to sex-marking, or the idea that gender is an important aspect when talking about CEOs, even if the topic at hand has little to do with gender.
Combine those three issues with the reflecting and reinforcing, and you may begin to realize that linguistic choices that seem relatively minor can actually have a whole lot of impact when placed in the context of our particular society.
An extra bonus: using gender neutral language is a great way to be inclusive of people like myself who don’t use male or female pronouns, and to shake up the gender binary in general. But let’s not get that far into gender theory, here.
Some Concrete Solutions
What to do, then, if you’re a writer wanting to talk about a hypothetical CEO (or doctor, or lawyer, or what have you) without using problematic language? Here are a few ideas.
One simple way to mix it up is to simply use female examples instead of male examples.
Instead of: If you can’t get your CEO to email you back, make an appointment with him.
Use: If you can’t get your CEO to email you back, make an appointment with her.
English doesn’t have a third person singular gender-neutral pronoun, but “they” is a good substitute. Just make sure your verbs match your pronoun.
Instead of: Ask your CEO if he wants a latte.
Use: Ask your CEO if they want a latte.
Rephrase the Sentence
You may be able to avoid singular third-person pronouns altogether.
Instead of: A good CEO keeps his colleagues in the loop.
Use: Good CEOs keep their colleagues in the loop.
Use: If you’re a good CEO, you’ll keep your colleagues in the loop.
Use: A good CEO keeps colleagues in the loop.
Use: Colleagues are kept in the loop by a good CEO.
Use Gender-Neutral Terms
Many words for occupations involve gender, as do terms for relationships, which can be easily modified.
Instead of: The chairman of the board went home early.
Use: The chair of the board went home early.
Instead of: The CEO asked the stewardess for coffee.
Use: The CEO asked the flight attendant for coffee.
Instead of: The executives brought their wives to the gala.
Use: The executives brought their spouses to the gala.
These are just handful of the many situations that come up that may require you to make a linguistic choice about gender. I highly recommend NCTE’s Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language and the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s Writing for a North American Business Audience, which includes a section on non-discriminatory language, for further examples. It is totally possible to make your writing flow without contributing to stereotypical language.
The Marvel of Linguistic Flexibility
Something of a postscript: I have encountered a number of sticklers for grammar who have told me that the universal he is grammatically correct regardless of the gender issues, that the singular they is simply atrocious, and that the passive voice should never, ever be used (see what I did there?).
I offer this in support of gender-neutral language, and keep in mind that I say this as a writer and an editor. First of all, English does not have an official governing body that determines what is and is not “grammatically correct,” unlike, say French. As a result, English is a flexible language – its rules are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and the language has changed significantly over time.
More importantly, it comes down to a simple question. Are you more concerned with grammatical correctness and preserving archaic modes of speech, or would you rather contribute to an updated form of English that is non-discriminatory and does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes against women?