Sexism is alive and well. Violence against women. A lack of government representation. Sexual harassment. The pay gap. And, contrary to what many might think, our language too reflects our patriarchal culture.
English is a very male-centered language. We commonly use words and phrases like “you guys,” firemen, salesmen, and landlord. The words we use are gendered, but we often don’t realize it because we’ve been using them since we grew up. They’re second-nature, almost automatic.
Why is gendered language an issue?
Fundamentally, our language today makes associations of weakness with women and strength with men. Past the more innocent words that are male-centered, we have a cavalry of slurs used to insult women. (It goes without saying you should not be using these). On the other hand, we have male-centered words to describe positive attributes like bravery or quality, like manly or man-made.
It’s important to grow aware of the language you use and make an effort to use gender inclusive words. Gender neutral and gender inclusive language isn’t about not including men. It includes everyone without doing so at the expense of women and other gender identities. The language we use reflects and affects the way we think. So, willful ignorance of gender-based dichotomies in language can be a sign of that you need to reflect on your role in perpetuating gender inequality.
That said, it takes time to grow conscious of your language and make changes to be more inclusive. But in the myriad of structures upholding gender inequality, changing your language is one of the quickest and most individual things you can do.
Language around identity is constantly evolving. To get you started on the evolution of your personal vocabulary, here are 14 words and phrases you should switch out for gender inclusive alternatives.
1. Folks or y’all instead of guys.
This may be one of the hardest to change because for most of us, it’s natural to say “guys” when referring to a group, even if the group is not fully or partially composed of men. However, the word is male-centered and inherently exclusionary. Using folks or y’all is much more inclusive and means the same thing.
2. Homeland instead of fatherland or motherland.
When referring to your native country or the original home of something, it’s easy to fall into gendered language of either gender, whether it’s fatherland or motherland. But, a word that means the same thing and isn’t rooted in any particular gender is homeland.
3. First-year instead of freshman.
The order goes freshman, sophomore, junior, then senior. But perhaps without realizing the absurdity of it, saying freshman deems every non-male student a man. Instead, use a word that means the same thing while being inclusive of all genders: first-year.
4. Chair or chairperson instead of chairman.
This is another almost subconscious use of a male-centered word folks often use when referring to a man or woman. Instead, say chair or chairperson.
5. Garbage collector instead of garbagemen.
If you want to know when the garbage is getting picked up, you may find yourself asking, “When are the garbagemen coming?” Even if it seems harmless because the word is commonly used, garbagemen excludes everyone who isn’t a man. Garbage collector or trash collector is the proper, gender-inclusive alternative.
6. Cowhand instead of cowboy or cowgirl.
This is one of the coolest gender inclusive terms to us because it seems so obscure but also engenders mystique and intrigue. Cowhand is probably not a typical part of any vocabulary we’ve naturally been around or heard – unless you know your way around a ranch – but it is the gender inclusive replacement for cowboy or cowgirl.
7. Postal worker instead of postman.
More people are delivering the mail than just men. While songs like this are classic hits that will hold a special place in our hearts, it is best to say postal worker to avoid excluding anyone on the basis of gender.
8. Police officer instead of policeman.
As with many other items on this list, the more common word used, policeman or policemen, is exclusionary of all police officers who are not men. Thus, it’s important to reflect that in your language.
9. Flight attendant instead of stewardess.
This is an example of gender inclusive language that’s already pretty common. On most airlines, you’ll hear the captain and instructional videos say “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess.” Just in case you need a reminder or didn’t know, flight attendant is preferred.
10. Member of congress instead of congressman or congresswoman.
We got in the habit of attaching gender to yet another role: being a member of congress. Instead, call the job what it is: congressperson or a member of congress.
11. Artificial, synthetic, or machine-made instead of man-made.
If there’s a lake or an island that isn’t natural, it’s likely you’d call it man-made because people made it. Using man-made in this situation is gender exclusive. On a wider scale, it inherently suggests that only men are the ones capable of building and making things. Artificial, synthetic, or machine-made or more accurate and inclusive alternatives.
12. Humankind instead of mankind.
Mankind is an extremely common word used to refer to all humans. It’s unlikely someone will grow angry if you use the word, but it so obviously centers the human race around one gender. Opt for humankind instead.
13. Faithful dog instead of man’s best friend.
Dogs are undeniably incredibly intelligent, sweet, and loyal creatures. But to say they’re a man’s best friend is exclusionary and male-centered language. One alternative you can use is faithful dog.
14. And drop the gendered part for lady doctor, woman lawyer, and similar cases.
Distinguishing a woman’s gender for job roles where no specifier would be used if they were a man reflects inherent sexism. Instead, drop “woman” or “lady.”