Why “Non-Gendered” Writing is Annoying

Writing can be a political minefield, even when you aren’t writing about politics. One of the biggest problems is using the language as it was, instead of adjusting to the way people think it should be used. I’m a woman, and I’m not in the least bit sensitive to the use of terms such as:

  • Mankind
  • Man
  • Spaceman
  • Him or he

But when I write, I have to be alert, and not write in a way that could be seen as discriminatory. In a way, I see the point. I first got into trouble with a client for using the term “businessmen” (without the obligatory nod to the “and women”), and of course, I’m aware that women are horribly under-represented at executive level, etc. Does the word reinforce stereotypes? Perhaps it does.

I wouldn’t want to be a businessman

I’ve had my own business for a few years now, and before that I was a working minority share partner in a business. If anyone had called me a “businessman”, I would have thought it odd, because I am a woman. It’s logical.

When people spoke about “What smart businessmen do” and so on, it never bothered me. Of course, one could say it’s a gendered mindset, but one could as easily say that seeing words such as this as being sexist is being a bit oversensitive. Well, one could, but one wouldn’t dare.

I dare to voice my opinion (but only here)

What is man? Once upon a time, I remember it being an all-embracing term for our species including both men and women. Now, the only politically correct generic terms I can think of are “human”, and even that has a “man” at the end of it, or “person”, but that has a “son” on the end of it, and sons are boys. OK. I’m kidding, but when you start thinking about a thing like this, you spot it everywhere!

I always thought that we were all part of mankind, with women achieving a special distinction indicated by an extra two letters in the word used to describe their gender. Yay! Check it out! TWO of them!

As a woman, I find the “don’t let’s forget the ladies” attitude rather patronizing. It’s an afterthought. We say “he or she” or “men and women”, and at one stroke we’ve fixed gender inequality. Noble!

The problem with all this is easy to spot. It makes writing clumsy. As soon as you talk about a certain type of person in the singular, “they” isn’t an option, and “he or she” sneaks tentatively in. It’s not too bad, but it can get painfully repetitive if you aren’t careful. As long as you keep thinking like this, it soon morphs, and the awkward “men and women” comes galumphing into the equation with hobnailed boots.

Sometimes, I’m even worried about calling dogs “he” and cats “she” in case that’s gendered writing. I could say “it”, but that might offend pet owners, mightn’t it? Well, that’s what one of my clients worried about anyway, and now it’s a niggle for me too.

My tips?

Whether I think it’s silly or not, I take care not to write things in a way that could be interpreted as gender specific. When I have to think about it, it annoys me. A lot of writers seem to have succumbed to “When a person… they…” statements, but that’s incorrect English, at least for the time being.

I avoid the potential for being thought a sexist, anti-feminist, female writer by writing generalizations in a plural context. Now the word “they” works very nicely, and it’s inclusive enough to pass muster. I’m also careful of most words with a “man” hanging onto the end. “Businessman” becomes “entrepreneur”, “spaceman” becomes “astronaut”. Whether you agree with the whole idea or not, you succumb at last.

I understand the worry about gender inequality, by the way. I just don’t think that changing the way we use language will fix it.

As an afterthought: have you noticed how bad things can always be gendered as male? The taxman is always a man, and a burglar can safely be referred to as “he”. It’s a bit unfair on the guys, and what if a woman has an ambition to become head of revenue services or break into houses?

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About andreadurrheim

I'm an ex-horticulturist turned horticultural journalist turned radio broadcaster and general freelance writer. I'm hoping to promote my work through my blog and find out more about other writers too!
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