'More inclusive language, more diversity': How language evolution creates equality
"Welcome aboard, ladies and gentleman," we're used to hearing flight attendants say over the intercom before takeoff.
But when you fly Air Canada, you'll instead hear: "Welcome aboard, everybody."
The airline began using gender-inclusive language in 2019 to make everyone feel "comfortable and respected," an Air Canada spokesperson told CTV News.
Air Canada joins a growing number of companies, local governments and religious institutions that are updating policies, handbooks and worship texts to use more inclusive language, reports NorthJersey.com, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
Gender-specific language, especially "he" as a catch-all term, can perpetuate patriarchal norms that make women and nonbinary people uncomfortable about applying for jobs, running for office and praying in houses of worship, experts say.
Walmart, for example, has encouraged employees to display their personal pronouns on lapel pins. The Episcopal Church adjusted language to allow women to serve in leadership positions. And, after a push from local resident Linda Hogoboom, the town of Boonton, New Jersey, updated the title of its representatives from aldermen to Town Council members.
"What started as this whole gender-neutral push for Board of Aldermen soon became this notion of representation on a whole other level," Hogoboom said.
Formal communications like "welcome, ladies and gentleman" can alienate people who do not identify as men or women, said Deena Fidas, the managing director for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit that educates businesses to foster inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ employees.
"There's a host of ways people can convey that sense of respect and enthusiasm without relying on gender tropes," Fidas said.
But English speakers learn systems and patterns that, for many, are difficult to unlearn and require an "intervention" to change, said William Leap, a professor emeritus at American University who studies queer theory, language and anthropology.
It may be simpler for nonbinary people who use "they" pronouns and their allies because they have a personal investment, or for younger people who "don't have the baggage that older folks do, and they also don't think about gender and sexuality the way that some older folks do," Leap said.
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'Imperative to evolve' to neutral language
Language stereotyping can be difficult to overcome, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. People are accustomed to gendered language — words that have bias toward a particular gender, like "waitress" — and linguistic bias appears at a young age, the study found.
Even when told that masculine pronouns, "he" and "him," were meant to be generic and include all genders, readers in the study still pictured men.
In recent years, awareness has grown around personal pronouns. People wear pins that read "she/her" or "he/him," or include pronouns in email signatures. People who identify outside binary male and female gender molds often use "they" pronouns, though there are several other neutral pronouns people may use, such as "ze" and "xe."
Sweden officially added a third, gender-neutral pronoun — "hen" — to its vocabulary in 2015 as an alternative to "hon" (she) or "han" (he). It's become one of the leading countries in the world for LGBTQ equality, according to Rainbow Europe.
Researchers Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez studied gender-neutral pronouns in Sweden and found improvement in people's attitudes toward gender equality, women and LGBTQ people.
They found people had less bias in favor of gender roles and categories, and the mental prominence of males decreased, according to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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Adopting gender-neutral language has been a "bottom-up movement" in the U.S., Tavits said. She chairs the political science department at Washington University in St. Louis.
If changes are going to be accepted at large, she said, capitalism could provide an incentive.
"Businesses have incentive to be inclusive," Tavits said. "They want to sell to as many people as they can, and if using gender-neutral language pulls in more customers, that’s what they will adopt."
Making religion gender-neutral
Gender-neutral language has roots in the feminist movement, Fidas said. Feminist theologians advocated for women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church, and they won that fight in 1976.
The rules of the Episcopal Church, called canons, used masculine pronouns and implied that only men should be ordained, said the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, the dean of academic affairs for Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
"In other situations one might argue 'he' is meant to be generic and include all people, [but] there's this duplicity where those in power can decide when 'he' means male and when 'he' is intended to mean all people," Meyers said.
When the church considered allowing women to hold leadership positions, leaders looked at revising the Book of Common Prayer, the text congregations use for worship. That involved creating a committee focused on linguistic sensitivity related to women.
Episcopal Church leaders added a new canon that said all the rules "would be equally applicable to men and women." They found ways to reword the text in a way that did not call attention to inclusive language, but eliminated masculine-specific language, and offered alternative worship texts, Meyers said.
The impacts of words used in church trickle down to how congregants are treated both in worship services and outside. By using masculine language when referring to God, which causes people to envision God as male, the church "allows for this legitimation of a patriarchal society," said the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
"We make God into a male and we raise males to the level of the divine and they become gods. We affirm the dominance of men, that they were meant to rule because they are the only ones created in God's image," Douglas said.
Incorporating gender-neutral language, in church and elsewhere, won't be easy for everyone. It's difficult to separate language and grammar from "the social context in which it is used," said Lex Konnelly, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto who studies sociocultural linguistics.
"A lot of times the resistance that is being expressed to these kinds of language changes, the language change is really just the tip of the iceberg," Konnelly said. "What's being objected to is not entirely language, but the social changes underneath. Oftentimes, grammar is used as a shield to resist the inclusion of particular communities in public spaces."
History shows changes happen because "so much visible discourse put it in front of people and said 'this is the way this needs to be,' " said Leap, the professor emeritus at American University.
That's how "queer" became part of national vernacular. ACT UP members chanted, "We're here, we're queer," at demonstrations during the AIDS crisis, and that "momentum disrupted deeply embedded habits" in the English language.
It takes the courage of outspoken people to "make the point that there are alternative[s]," Leap said.
Inclusive names, diverse faces
In a small New Jersey town, one woman spent nearly a year speaking out about the need to incorporate gender-neutral language in her local government.
Linda Hogoboom wrote letters and spoke at numerous meetings to urge her local leaders in Boonton to implement gender-inclusive language. Specifically, she wanted the town's Board of Aldermen to become the Town Council, and to label leaders "council members" rather than "aldermen."
Hogoboom's efforts started out as an ask for more inclusive language to keep up with the global awareness of gender bias and equality. But she felt the council ignored her requests for a vote on the matter — a letter she submitted was entered into the official record, but the council never acknowledged it out loud. She felt silenced, but that only led her mission to evolve.
"You need more inclusive language in order to bring in more diversity in order to make sure that … filtering out that which [council members] don't feel is important does not happen again," Hogoboom said.
Boonton leaders voted 7-2 in early 2021 to change its title to Town Council. That leaves Dover as the only New Jersey municipality led by a Board of Aldermen.
Boonton joined other governments across the nation in considering a switch to gender-neutral language. Two weeks after the New Jersey town's Board of Aldermen became the Town Council, the City Council of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, voted to change gender-specific language in city ordinances.
Many municipalities in Massachusetts have adopted new terms for their leadership. All but one of the state’s more than 40 cities use the title “city council," reported Wicked Local, another USA TODAY Network affiliate.
Also, a bill making its way through the Minnesota Legislature would, if passed, include gender-neutral language in the state constitution.
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Discomfort leads to change
Language changes, and will continue to evolve, Konnelly said.
Since the Episcopal Church made language changes, Douglas, the Episcopal Divinity School dean, has noticed more women in the House of Bishops, and with that came "an entirely different culture and style of leadership," she said.
Out & Equal continues work with up to 150 partners to change leadership styles in the business sector as well. But Fidas, its managing director, recognizes that making language adjustments won't come easily for everyone, much as it wasn't easy for the Boonton Town Council to change its name. But that discomfort leads to inclusive, equal and diverse work and life spaces.
"We always have to remember the discomfort someone feels in evolving their own language or behavior to make room for somebody else is often minuscule in comparison to the discomfort that someone who's more marginalized feels in an organization that won't include them," Fidas said. "[We give] people perspective that 'Hey, in this particular way, you are in the majority. How can you cultivate empathy and compassion for those who are not?' "
Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 737-6895 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibbons or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ReporterSammyGibbons/.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Gender in language influences what jobs and spaces people can enter