A Guide to Gender-Neutral Language In Marketing
When it comes to marketing communication, tailoring it to your audience is of utmost importance. Just like the right words can inspire, motivate, and persuade people to take action, the wrong words can have the opposite effect. Gender-neutral language is one way to ensure your marketing communication is as effective as possible.
As societies and cultures around the world become more inclusive – gender-wise and otherwise – consumers are becoming increasingly less tolerant of gender-specific language in marketing communication. This shift is especially noticeable in languages that are traditionally gendered, such as Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.
As a result, businesses that want to stay ahead of the curve have no option but to embrace change and rework their branding for more inclusive marketing strategies. That is how a new trend has emerged in the world of marketing: gender-neutral language. But what exactly is gender-neutral language, and what benefits does it offer businesses? Let’s dive into it.
In this post:
- What is gender-neutral language?
- Gender-neutral language vs inclusive language
- What’s inclusive marketing?
- The advantages of using gender-neutral language in marketing
- The history behind the masculine generic
- Gendered languages vs non-gendered languages
- Brands championing gender neutrality
- Research supporting the use of gender-neutral language
- Gender-neutral language around the world
- Gender-neutral language guidelines
- Gender-neutral language best practices
What is gender-neutral language?
Simply put, gender-neutral language or gender-inclusive language is a way of speaking that doesn’t use gender pronouns (“he”, “she”, “him”, “her”) or gender-specific nouns (“man”, “king”, “queen”, “prince”, “princess”).
Instead, it uses gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns (“they”, “them”, “their”) and gender-neutral or gender-inclusive nouns (“person”, “people”) when referring to groups of people or an individual whose gender is unknown.
In languages like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, or Arabic, which have gender-specific word endings (e.g., “-o” for masculine gender, “-a” for feminine gender), not paying attention to gender can result in inadvertently excluding people who don’t identify as male or female.
In these gendered languages, gender-neutral language can be a bit more challenging because you need to be aware of the gender endings of all your words.
For example, the word “director” is masculine in Spanish but gender-neutral in English. However, with a little effort, it is possible to create gender-neutral sentences in these languages that are both accurate and respectful.
Gender-neutral language vs inclusive language
The terms “gender-neutral language” and “inclusive language” are often used interchangeably – however, there is a subtle but important difference between the two, and between “inclusive language” and “gender-inclusive language.”
Inclusive language acknowledges and celebrates all diversity in society. This includes diversity regarding gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, socio-economic status, age, ability, and more.
Gender-neutral language, or gender-inclusive language, or genderless language (they are all synonyms), on the other hand, is specifically concerned with creating an all-gender-encompassing language environment in which everyone – regardless of gender identity – feels respected and included.
In a way, then, inclusive language is a broader concept that encompasses gender-neutral language.
What’s inclusive marketing?
Inclusive marketing is a type of marketing that celebrates diversity and aims to include as many people as possible in its target audience.
It does this by taking into account the different needs, experiences, and perspectives of everyone who makes up its target market.
According to a very insightful blog by Microsoft, there are three concepts to create inclusive marketing:
- What you market (such as an inclusively designed product).
- Who you market to (such as an audience who isn’t considered part of the majority, with representative creative that reflects their diversity).
- How you market.
Gender-neutral language (or gender-inclusive language, or genderless language) would correspond to item number 3.
The advantages of using gender-neutral language in marketing
While some people argue that gender-inclusive language is unnecessary and gender distinctions should be maintained to avoid confusion, there are many compelling reasons why using gender-inclusive language can be beneficial for marketers.
- You prevent your brand from unintentionally excluding anyone who doesn’t identify as male or female. This includes transgender, gender non-conforming, gender-fluid, or a-gender people, who make up a sizable consumer segment.
- When everyone is included, your brand becomes more diverse and inclusive, which can be a major selling point for today’s socially conscious consumers.
- You communicate that your brand is respectful of all gender identities. In an age where businesses are being called out for using sexist or transphobic language, using gender-neutral language sends a powerful message that your brand is progressive, forward-thinking, and values diversity.
- You tap into a larger market by including values that might count by the time your customer has to make their mind between two options.
In sum, using genderless language in marketing communication is a powerful way to show your commitment to inclusion and respect for all gender identities. It’s a simple change that can have a big impact, and it’s something every business should consider implementing in their marketing strategy.
The history behind the masculine generic
The use of masculine pronouns or masculine terms to refer to both men and women is not a new phenomenon. It’s quite common in many languages, including English. The pronoun “he” has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun for centuries.
For instance, it is still used in idiomatic expressions and sayings, like “he who hesitates is lost” or “he who laughs last, laughs longest.”
Advocates of the masculine generic claim that the use of masculine pronouns and masculine nouns to refer to both men and women has been common throughout history and is not offensive or exclusive to anyone. However, while it has indeed been common throughout history, here are some facts that might make you reconsider using the masculine generic:
- 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”.
The reason behind the use of masculine as a linguistic convention is that, historically, men have been seen as the default gender. In other words, when people thought about the humanity in general, they tended to picture men. This is evident everywhere from psychological research books – like Sigmund Freud’s – that didn’t include women as part of their research participants, to history books, where women are often erased or dismissed.
Nowadays, however, several cognitive studies have shown that the way we express is representative of our cognitive interpretation of things, either consciously or not. and what’s even more curious is that we even assign gender to words that, by their very definition, should be gender-neutral.
For instance, what do you visualise when you read words such as “person,” “people” or “individual”? Chances are the image in your head is of a man, not a woman. A massive linguistic analysis of more than 630 billion words by psychologists at New York University compared how often words for person (“individual,” “people,” and so on) were associated with terms for a man (“male,” “he”) or a woman (“female,” “she”).
They found that male-related words overlapped with “person” more frequently than female words did. The cultural concept of a person, from this perspective, is more often a man than a woman, according to the study.
Gendered languages vs non-gendered languages
Like we’ve mentioned above, some languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Arabic, always make gender explicit, whereas others, such as English and German, don’t always do so. Some languages, like Chinese and Persian, don’t even assign nouns a gender or already have gender-neutral forms to make inclusive communication easier.
In gendered-languages, most nouns denote a specific gender (masculine or feminine), and there are specific pronouns that reflect the gender of the person or thing being referred to.
What isn’t always evident is that these gender distinctions can influence the way we think. This, in turn, means that certain stereotypes about gender can be perpetuated through language.
Here’s a curious exercise: Ask a Spanish-, Italian-, or Portuguese-speaking friend or acquaintance to translate “the nurse” into their language. In our personal experience, 9 out of 10 times they reply ‘”a 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 Social Science experts have been questioning for a few decades now. And they’ve recently been joined by a big portion of the Millennial Generation and Generation Z.
The use of the singular “they”
In English, when we want to refer to someone without specifying their gender, we can use the pronoun “they” with singular reference. Similarly, there are a number of derived pronouns or adjectives that can be applied to follow this pattern, such as “them”, “their”, and “theirs”. For instance, if we don’t know the gender of the person we are talking about, we can say “someone left their phone on the train”.
In recent years, the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun has become more common in English. Merriam-Webster added it as an official word in 2019. Two years before that, in 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook – the gold standard for journalists – added “they” as a gender-neutral form. the gold standard of sorts for journalists.
In fact, this use of the singular “they” has been around for centuries, and there are a number of examples of it in classic literature. Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among many other famed English writers, used “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun because it was the standard in English until the late 19th century, when Victoria-era grammarians started to advocate for the use of “he” to include both genders (“both” because, at the time, people were believed to be either male or female).
Though the singular “they” and its derivatives are a useful option for gender-neutral language, it is not the only one. For instance, “womxn” or “womyn” are gender-neutral terms that have been proposed as an alternative to “woman”.
These terms were created to address the fact that the word “woman” is often seen as exclusive and excludes transgender and gender non-binary people. Similarly, “Latinx” is a neologism that has been proposed as an English alternative to “Latino” or “Latina”, as a way to stand up against the Spanish grammatical gender.
Brands championing gender neutrality
There are a number of brands and organisations that are championing gender neutrality (even beyond language) in their marketing activities.
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 genderless 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.
Moreover, Nike, ASOS, and Old Navy among most inclusive brands that are challenging gender stereotypes, according to a Gen Z Fashion Report from UNiDAYS, the world’s leading Student Affinity Network. The findings show that over half of Gen Z (61%) think that the mainstream fashion industry overlooks minority groups, including non-binary and trans people, with nearly nine in ten (87%) believing strongly that there should be better gender equality and inclusion within fashion.
Research supporting the use of gender-neutral language
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
These arguments are supported by a growing body of research. Some of this research has shown that gender-neutral language can lead to more gender-equal societies, reduce gender bias, and increase job satisfaction for both men and women.
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).
As if that weren’t enough, specialists in language sciences and psychology have recently conducted a project called Language, Cognition, and Gender (ITN LCG) to address some questions about gender and language inequality.
The project was funded by the European Union and it consisted of more than 40 researchers from 16 different countries. The project found that the use of gender-neutral language can “help redress gender imbalance in key areas such as employment, political representation, and education.”
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.
Examples of gender-neutral language around the world
The cause for gender-neutral language has taken different shapes in different parts of the world and in different languages. Let’s take a look at a few examples of gender-neutral language.
Spanish: The “x”, “@”, and “e” endings
Argentina is a great example of gender-neutral language, leading the way by using the “x”, “@” and “e” endings to denote gender neutrality. For example, “lxs niñxs”, “l@s niñ@s”, or “les niñes” (the children) instead of “los niños”.
“In classrooms and daily conversations, young people are changing the way they speak and write — replacing the masculine “o” or the feminine “a” with the gender-neutral “e” in certain words — to change what they see as a deeply gendered culture,” Schmidt wrote. “Their efforts are at the center of a global debate over gender, amid the growing visibility of non-binary identities and a wave of feminist movements worldwide.”Samantha Schmidt – The Washington Post
Arabic: The dual as neutral
Being a language with so many speakers, Arabic is comprised of many dialects, each with different takes on and examples of gender-neutral language. Different communities have adopted different methods.
In modern standard Arabic, the dual gender is often used as a neutral gender. However, because of how obsolete the dual gender is in spoken Arabic, this way of speaking is often seen as too formal or even snobbish.
Other common strategies in Arabic include defaulting to a female plural even when a group of males or a mixed group is being referred to, or alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns to refer to the same person.
German: Gender-neutral pronouns and nouns
German has a whole range of gender-neutral nouns, but these aren’t commonly used to refer to people. However, that’s beginning to change, with gender-neutral nouns becoming more and more common to describe people.
In terms of german gender-neutral pronouns, pronouns “ich,” “du,” “wir,” and “uns” are indeed gender-neutral, and neo-pronouns like “xier” and “sier” have emerged as a gender-inclusive alternative to traditional 3rd-person pronouns.
Another example of gender-neutral language in German includes using an uppercase “I” sandwiched in compound nouns addressing both males and females at once. An asterisk, known as the “gender star”, has also emerged as a way to signal gender-neutrality.
French: The asterisk
Similar to what happens in other languages, gender-neutral French nouns are often signaled with an asterisk. For example “ami•e•s” (friends) can be used to describe a group of friends where gender is irrelevant.
Swedish: “Hen” as a gender-neutral pronoun
In 2015, Sweden added the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to its official dictionary. The pronoun is used to describe someone who doesn’t identify as male or female.
This use of “hen” is similar to the way “they” is often used in English as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.
Gender-neutral language guidelines
A number of gender-neutral guidelines have been created over the years. These apply not just to marketing, but to workplace communication, education, the public sphere, and beyond.
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
And then there are the style guides of various publishing houses, online newspapers, and private companies, all of which have their own recommendations for avoiding gender bias in language:
- How to Make Your Organization’s Language More Inclusive – Harvard Business Revie
- A Guide to Inclusive Language and Copy – Boldist
- How to Use and Promote Inclusive Language at Your Organisation – Hubspot
With a quick Google search, you can find all sorts of gender-neutral language guidelines in a myriad of languages. This is a great starting point for any business looking to become more inclusive in its marketing.
Gender-neutral language best practices
Below are some gender-neutral language best practices for organisations when it comes communicating in a gender-neutral way.
In the workplace
Respect is always the starting point in the workplace. Whether you’re addressing an email to a colleague or giving a presentation to a group, it’s important to be mindful of the way you speak. Gender-neutral language should be used as much as possible to avoid alienating or offending anyone:
- When writing emails, use gender-neutral greetings such as “Hello all”, “Hi everyone”, or “Good morning/afternoon”. If you need to address someone specifically, use their first and last name.
- Use gender-inclusive job titles: “Sales associate” instead of “salesman”, “the server” instead of “waitress”, “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess”, etc.
- Use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they”, “them”, and “their” when referring to someone whose gender you don’t know.
- When speaking to a group of people, use gender-neutral terms such as “everyone”, “colleagues”.
Besides being inclusive by the way you refer to others in the workplace, you can also take gender into account when delegating tasks, offering promotions, and setting salaries so that you’re sure you’re not underestimating anyone based on their gender and that you’re giving everyone the chance to reach their full potential.
Marketing is one of the most creative industries out there and, as such, it has a lot of power to shape the way we see gender roles in society. For many years, women have been portrayed as homemakers while men have been shown as the breadwinners.
However, today’s world is changing the rules and gender stereotypes are no longer as clear-cut as they used to be. This is how today we see cleaning products advertisements that feature men doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom, as well as women in ads for power tools.
When it comes to gender sensitivity in marketing, the main goal is to make sure your brand is not excluding anyone based on their gender identity. Here are some ways to do that:
- Use gender-neutral terms such as “parent” instead of “mother”, “sibling” instead of “brother”, or “partner” instead of “husband”.
- Build product descriptions that don’t make assumptions about the gender of the person using them. This also implies avoiding stereotyped performances. For example, instead of “this dress is perfect for a night out”, say “this dress is perfect for a special occasion”.
- Avoid making suggestions that are based on sexism, such as “this is the perfect gift for your girlfriend/wife”.
- Use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they”, “them”, and “their” when referring to someone whose gender you don’t know.
- Create gender-awareness campaigns that challenge gender stereotypes. Some particularly successful marketing campaigns are Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign and Pantene’s “Sorry Not Sorry” commercial. These campaigns not only challenge gender stereotypes but also empower women and send a strong message of inclusivity.
- If you’re trying to set a bond with a particular client, you may ask them about their self-perceived gender or what do they want to be called instead of making assumptions or using gendered vocatives such as “Miss”, “Madam” or “Sir”.
In the public sphere
When interacting in public places such as parliaments, town halls, conferences, or hospitals, communication has to be clear and concise. Many institutions have started using gender-neutral language in their bylaws and procedures manuals and follow gender-inclusive practices, such as:
- Avoiding the generic use of “man” and its derivatives. Alternatives: “humanity” (for “mankind”), “staff” (for “manpower”), “a French person” (for “Frenchman”), “the French” or “French people” (for “Frenchmen”), “political leaders” (for “statesmen”).
- Rephrasing completely when necessary. For instance, instead of “the official shall carry out his duties,” the following could be used:
- Plural forms (“officials shall carry out their duties…”)
- The imperative (“carry out your duties”)
- Pronoun omission (“shall carry out duties”)
- The passive voice (“duties shall be carried out”)
- Using the generic “they” and its derivatives
- Using gender-neutral job titles
Resistance against gender-neutral language
Even though gender-neutral language is becoming more and more common, there is still resistance against it, especially from academic and legal circles.
Some people argue that gender-neutral language is unnatural and that it’s impossible to get rid of gender markers altogether. Others claim that gender-neutral language is a ploy by feminists to erase gender distinctions altogether and that it’s nothing more than political correctness gone too far. And there’s still a large number of people who believe that gender-neutral language is unnecessary and that it will only lead to more confusion because it “goes against grammar rules.”
The Académie Française
Among the ones who are strongly against gender-neutral language, we can find the Académie Française. Back in 2017, it stated on its website:
“Faced with the aberration of ‘inclusive writing’, the French language finds itself in mortal danger” and “We find it hard to identify the desired objective and how to overcome the practical obstacles of writing and reading – both visually and out loud – and pronunciation (…) This will increase the burden for teachers and even more so for readers.”
The Royal Spanish Academy
The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) is the authority on the Spanish language. They are in charge of creating and updating the dictionary, as well as setting the rules of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.
Even though they haven’t released an official guideline about gender-neutral language yet, they have released a report where they share their position in this regard.
As an institution, they declare themselves completely against any forms of sexism against women or the LGBTI+ community. However, they deny the fact that language is sexist itself. Instead, they say speakers are the ones who use it in a sexist way. For that reason, they don’t believe gender-neutral language is the solution and they are not planning to change the current rules of grammar.
The media is a powerful tool that can be used for good or for bad. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of negativity surrounding gender-neutral language in the media, especially from right-wing and conservative outlets.
Many of these outlets argue that gender-neutral language is a waste of time, that it’s nothing more than political correctness gone too far, and that feminism is a movement that’s trying to destroy the gender binary.
They also speak of a made-up “gender ideology” that’s “being forced” on the general population and that it’s a threat to traditional family values.
What we need right now is more positive media coverage about gender-neutral language. We need to show people that it’s not a bad thing, that it’s something that can make our lives easier, and that it’s here to stay.
A cause for celebration
The fact that language is constantly evolving and new terms are coined every single day to describe the ever-growing diversity of gender and sexual identities is something to celebrate.
We should be proud of the fact that we’re moving towards a more inclusive society where everyone is welcome and everyone can be themselves.
So, the next time you hear someone say that gender-neutral language is a bad thing, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell them that they’re wrong. It’s time to put an end to the negativity and start celebrating gender-neutral language!