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Gender-Neutral Language: The New Marketing Strategy?

Over the last few years, there has been a monumental shift in how brands and organisations act towards gender, with gender-neutral language stepping hard. As consumers become more open and accepting, they are becoming increasingly less tolerant towards clichés and stereotypes surrounding gender.

We consulted our Social Sciences expert Julieta Pussetto about her take on brands increasingly opting for non-binary or inclusive language for their customer-facing content. Keep reading to learn from her expert insights!

Julieta Pussetto - Meet the Team - About Us - Expert in Gender-Neutral Language
Julieta Pussetto, English>Spanish Translator specialised in Social Sciences and Institutional Communications. Co-founder of Crisol Translation Services.

Millennials and Generation Z have helped to create a significant cultural and social shift, rejecting binary labels and traditional definitions. These gender issues have seen private and public organisations adopt a more gender-neutral approach in everything they do.

What is Gender-Neutral Language?

As the world becomes more accepting and inclusive, we’ve witnessed an increasing use of gender-neutral terms (like ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’) and gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular ‘they’, and using addressing formulas like ‘people’, ‘folks’, ‘everyone’, and ‘dear guests/passengers’ as opposed to ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘boys and girls’, and so on.

Gender-neutral language refers to the use of words, phrases, and grammar that do not specify a gender. This type of language helps to break stereotypes, decrease gender bias, and increase support for non-male individuals. And brands and official bodies across the globe have started to notice it.

Is Gender-Neutral Language the Same as Inclusive Marketing?

They are not the same, but they are connected. Inclusive Marketing means communicating and connecting with an audience of a particular minority or traditionally excluded group, whether based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, ability, and so on. Gender-neutral language is one of the ways of communicating with non-male customers and making them feel that the brand understands them. According to a very insightful blog by Microsoft, there are three concepts to create inclusive marketing:

  1. What you market (such as an inclusively designed product).
  2. Who you market to (such as an audience who isn’t considered part of the majority, with representative creative that reflects their diversity).
  3. How you market.

Gender-neutral language would correspond to item number 3.

A Curious Exercise

Regardless of the language, the logic behind non-binary language is making our best to use non-gendered words to eliminate assumptions about someone’s gender when we don’t know it. Which we do a lot, and not just by assuming the male gender but the female too.

Here’s an exercise: ask a Spanish-, Italian-, or Portuguese-speaking friend or acquaintance to translate ‘the nurse’ into their language. In my personal experience, 9 out of 10 times they reply ‘la enfermera’, ‘l’infermiera’, or ‘a enfermeira’ (all of them in their female-gendered version). Same with ‘the doctor’: ‘el médico’/’el doctor’, ‘il medico’/’il dottore’, ‘o medico’/’o doutor’ (all of them in their male-gendered version).

Why is this? What historical assumptions and social constructions underlie this linguistic phenomenon? That’s what us, Social Sciences experts, have been questioning for a few decades now. And we’ve recently been joined by a big portion of the Millennial Generation and Generation Z, and by brands and public bodies throughout the world who have noticed that being inclusive increases their reach and likeability.

Why Has the Male Gender Historically Been Used to Refer to Any Gender?

To answer this, we need to have a look at some historical facts. The first grammars of Modern English were written in the 16th and 17th centuries. In medieval years (5th through 16th centuries), a grammar school was a school for the teaching of Latin to boys from wealthy families, generally of ages ten to fourteen.

The purpose of these grammars was to set a standard of English language among the students which could be used for them to convert into Latin. Those who wrote the grammars were male, and they wrote with their male audience in mind. The use of masculine words (such as ‘he’), therefore, likely did not reflect a rule that male pronounces could refer to people of either gender.

Women were rarely literate back then, so there wasn’t much of a need for a singular pronoun that could refer to either men or women. As girls entered the schools of England in the 19th century, the need arose and, in 1850, an Act of Parliament granted use of the generic concept of the word ‘he’ stating ‘words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females’.

What Brands Are Adopting Inclusive Language and Why

Societies are striving for equality, and the use of gender-neutral language is one part of creating a fairer and more welcoming world. While the last few years have seen the debate around gender come under the spotlight, and both private and public organisations get it and apply it, it’s not a new conversation.

More and more marketing professionals have taken note that using gendered language just because ‘we’ve always done it this way’ can backfire. A big part of their target customers regard the brand as not being progressive, as not caring for or respecting them, or they don’t feel directly addressed. And brands want them to feel they are being talked to directly.

The Experts Agree

You may remember the infamous letter taken out in the New York Times by Third Love’s CEO Heidi Zak. The letter made a good point:

“We believe the future is building a brand for every woman, regardless of her shape, size, age, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. This shouldn’t be seen as groundbreaking, it should be the norm…” she wrote. “And please stop insisting that inclusivity is a trend.”

Open Letter to Victoria’s Secret by Heidi Zak, Third Love – New York Times

Third Love’s Chief Creative Officer backs up her colleague’s words:

“Consumers have evolved from wanting to be sold an unrealistic dream, and instead, opt to feel like they’re a part of the dream,” she says. “They want to see themselves in the brands they support, whether that’s in the products offered or models portrayed in marketing.”

Ra’el Cohen, Third Love

The marketing world is scrambling to understand how best to respond to this market change. Brands that are ahead of the curve have started launching genderless lines and products and using non-binary language. Calvin Klein was one of the first to raise the question in the marketing world, launching a gender-neutral fragrance in 1994.

More recently, countless fashion brands have adopted not only gender-neutral language but also products, such as beauty products from the likes of Aesop and Panacea, to the world’s first gender-neutral children’s dolls from Mattel.

What About Public Organisations?

Government bodies do not fall behind. There are countless examples: the UK Government Legal Department, for example, launched a practical guide to gender-neutral writing in 2019, and the issue is openly addressed on the Government’s website:

In legal writing, masculine language has traditionally been used to refer to people regardless of their gender. The practice for legislation changed in 2007. Since then, it has been government policy to write legislation in gender-neutral language. The use of masculine words to cover people regardless of gender or sex is unnecessary, inaccurate and tends to reinforce historic gender stereotypes. In other words, gender-neutral writing is about clarity, inclusion and equality.

UK Government, Civil Service Blog

Statistics Backing Up the Case of Non-Binary Language

A 2016 survey of young Americans found that Generation Z (1996 onwards) are far more open-minded and permissive than their older millennial counterparts when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. Only 48% of Gen-Zs identify as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65% of millennials. On top of that, 81% of Gen-Zs said that gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to.

Another study, the 2018 Accenture Holiday Shopping survey, found that 70 percent of millennials are more likely to choose one brand over another if that brand demonstrates inclusion and diversity in terms of its promotions and offers.

If Google Says It…

In November 2019, The Female Quotient partnered with Google and Ipsos this past summer to survey nearly 3,000 U.S. consumers of various backgrounds to understand perceptions surrounding diversity and inclusion in advertising.

The study found that people are more likely to consider, or even purchase, a product after seeing an ad they think is diverse or inclusive (in terms of gender identity, age, body type, race/ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, skin tone, language, religious/spiritual affiliation, physical ability, socio-economic status, and overall appearance).

In fact, 64% of those surveyed said they took some sort of action after seeing an ad that they considered to be diverse or inclusive. This percentage is higher among specific consumer groups including Latinx+ (85%), Black (79%), Asian/Pacific Islander (79%), LGBTQ (85%), millennial (77%), and teen (76%) consumers. (Read the full report here).

The Challenges of Adopting Gender-Neutral Language

While there is no denying the many benefits of adopting a gender-neutral language, it can be challenging. Certain languages are particularly challenging to make gender-inclusive, such as Italian, Hindi, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and others.

Spanish (our language of expertise here at Crisol) is definitely testing. Sometimes, adopting a genderless approach is tough, and in some cases almost impossible. However, the LGBTQ+ community has created gender-neutral alternatives. In Argentina, for example, Gen-Zs are leading the change to eliminate gender in language.

As reported by the Washington Post in 2018, Natalia Mira, 18, used gender-neutral language in a television interview that made headlines across the Spanish-speaking world last year. In classrooms and daily conversations, young people are replacing the masculine “o” or the feminine “a” with the gender-neutral “e” in certain words.

Departments from at least five universities across Argentina have announced that they will accept the use of this “inclusive” Spanish in schoolwork. The gender-neutral words are splattered on banners and campaign fliers and graffiti in the capital. After a judge stirred controversy by using the form in a recent court decision, an oversight committee of magistrates declared that it is now permissible for judges to use the gender-neutral words.

Books have been translated into the gender-neutral Spanish, including a version of “The Little Prince.” The form has reached Spanish speakers in the United States, prompting discussions in university language programs.

Washington Post

Resistance Against Gender-Neutral Language

There is resistance, though. The Royal Spanish Academy, the preeminent authority on the language, has said that these grammatical changes are “unnecessary and artificial.” For many Spanish speakers, gender-neutral forms are an aberration. It’s a very controversial topic that divides even linguists.

I, personally, because of my professional specialisation and because I consider myself a descriptivist rather than a prescriptionist, believe that language is alive. No language is the same as it was 200 years ago. But I also see where colleagues and non-linguist people come from when they reject non-binary language.

At the end of the day, for us translators, what matters is what our client wants and needs. Every text has a target audience and tone of voice and reflects the writer’s values and attitudes. Our translations need to be faithful to that, whether it be binary or non-binary.

A Cause for Celebration

In my opinion, it really is a great thing that language is constantly evolving and new terms are coined every single day. Language always has and always will reflect our cultural changes and provide us with ways to describe and express new things and ideas. 

If you are looking for high-quality, gender-neutral translations and copywriting, then Crisol Translation Services is here for you. We specialise in providing a wide range of English to Spanish and Spanish to English translation services, and our boutique team ensures we can provide a truly personal touch. Want to find out how we can help you? Get in touch today!

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