Language is powerful and dynamic; it defines how we view the world. The words we use to communicate help us to form connections with others, our surroundings, and our own identities. Identifying ourselves in our own terms, with the pronouns we choose and being recognized with inclusive words is part of the democratization of language and the pride of being who we are.
However, in some cases, language can be used to exclude specific people and reproduce negative biases. Research from Stanford University shows how the use of certain words that seem to be harmless can, in fact, perpetuate gender stereotypes. For example, the statement “girls are as good as boys in mathematics” implies that being good at math is more common and natural for boys.
Why use gender-inclusive language?
The movement to promote gender-inclusive language started with the objective of eliminating and avoiding sexist social constructs. The Guía de lenguaje inclusivo de género (or, Guide for Gender-Inclusive Language) of the National Council of Culture and the Arts in Chile asserts that “language is not in itself sexist, but its use can be.” The guide promotes a conscious selection of words to avoid using the masculine as a default to describe people in general. And while the English language has very few gender markers, with the exception of pronouns, possessives, forms of address and some nouns), the Guidelines of Gender-inclusive Language in English of the United Nations offers similar guidance to use inclusive terms such as “chairperson” rather than the masculine form of “chairman”. The guide also discourages the use of gender-biased expressions such as “she runs like a girl.”
Pronouns and self-identification
Inclusive language is not limited to people who consider themselves to be part of the gender binary, which categorizes all people as either a woman or a man. For some LGBTQ+ persons, such as transgender individuals who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, and others with non-binary identities who do not wish to identify as either, language is key to their self-identification and inclusion in society. This is where pronouns, for example, are important. These individuals may decide to express their identity using the grammatical gender of female or male, while others do not feel comfortable with these constructs and choose to express themselves in other ways.
In Spanish and in English?
In various countries in Latin America, like Argentina and Chile, civil society organizations and some public sector figures have encouraged the use of the letter “e” at the end of words to connote grammatical neutrality: for example, using “elle” rather than “él” or “ella” (he or she, respectively). In English-speaking countries, the term “they” is taking on similar usage. In fact, the 2019 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary added “they” as a pronoun applicable to “a singular person with a non-binary gender identity.”
The National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health of the Trevor Project (2020) in the United States confirmed that 25% of young people used neutral pronouns, such as they/them or a combination of pronouns to refer to themselves. Another study on the health of transgender youth, supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that transgender individuals who were able to use their name of choice – instead of the name they were given at birth – reported less depression and suicidal ideation and behavior, which tend to be quite elevated among this group of adolescents.
How to transform our words
In health services
In the past several years, various tools have been developed to offer specific guidance on incorporating inclusive language into the workplace, schools, and other contexts. The Premier Nursing Academy in Florida provides advice to healthcare workers on inclusive language that “doesn’t make assumptions or include negativity about the LGBTQ+ population… and avoids other behaviors of speech that contribute to an unwelcoming environment.” The guide suggests, for example, using terms like “all sexes” and “sex assigned at birth” instead of “opposite sex or both sexes” and “biological sex”. For gender identity, the preferred term is “all genders.” Other suggestions include the use of first names rather than Mr. or Mrs. unless one is asked to do otherwise, and to say, “same-sex relationship” rather than “gay or lesbian relationship.”
In the media
A language style guide on LGBTQ people for Spanish-speaking journalists recommends “if the person being interviewed is transgender or does not identify as a specific gender, it is appropriate to ask what pronoun they prefer.” The guide asks journalists to be aware that even if the pronoun does not seem to coincide with the person’s name or physical appearance, it should be respected. Another media guide for the English-speaking Caribbean places its emphasis on preventing sensationalist or injurious coverage, including avoiding the pejorative terms for LGBTQ people common in some countries in that region.
In the private sector
American Express is a good example of a large company that advocates for inclusive language in the private sector. American Express underscores several of the benefits of inclusive speech, such as 1) reducing sexism and the perpetuation of prejudice, microaggressions, and exclusion in the workplace, 2) attracting a more diverse pool of candidates for job vacancies, and 3) attracting a more diverse group of customers.
Our mission is inclusion
Within the IDB, we are joining the initiative to encourage employees to include their preferred pronouns in their email signatures, and to respect those that each of their colleagues decide to use. Part of the Bank’s Vision 2025 is to promote and respect the diversity of all people in Latin America and the Caribbean, not just in our operations, but also within our institution.
Although the language is something that we learn and internalize from childhood, it continues to evolve throughout our lives. During the month of LGBTQ+ pride, let’s seek the best ways to transform our words into instruments of change and inclusion. This is a learning process that will inevitably include mistakes. But it is important to try and to grow together with our language. And if we make mistakes, we can just correct ourselves, apologize, and move forward.
We also explore the use of inclusive language in Spanish, which you can read about in our blog: