Gender-Neutral Language


Last academic year we had shared an article with all of you on “Cultivating Self Esteem in Daughters’.

A powerful and relevant thought to pursue indeed. Many of you read that article and reached out to us with your thoughts as well.

Carrying somewhat similar thoughts forward, some interesting studies and research has been done in the last couple of years focusing on busting gender stereotypes. I happened to read one such research which talks about Sweden and its recently coined gender neutral pronoun, “Hen”. Let me explain this a bit more elaborately:

  • Hen is a gender-neutral personal pronoun recently introduced in Swedish language, intended as an alternative to the gender-specific hon (“she”) and han (“he”).
  • It can be used when the gender of a person is not known or when it is not desirable to specify them as either a “she” or “he”.
  • The word was first proposed in 1966, and again in 1994. However, it did not receive widespread recognition until around 2010, when it began to be used in some books, magazines and newspapers, and provoked media debates and controversies over gender neutrality and parenting. In July 2014 it was announced that ‘hen’ would be included in Svenska Akademiens ordlista, the official glossary of the Swedish Academy.

As nations and societies have evolved over the past few decades, the use of gender-specific language has or rather is becoming a thing of the past. Although the extent of this may still vary from country to country, it is now becoming more common and acceptable to use gender-neutral terms when writing and speaking in English.

A deliberate research reveals that writers and speakers of the English language are showing a marked shift in vocabulary usage. People are using more of gender neutral equivalents, such as:

What Was Said Earlier…What Is Said/Written Now…What Was Said Earlier…What Is Said/Written Now…
Airline StewardessFlight AttendantGirl FridayAide, Assistant
Boss Man, Boss LadyBoss, SupervisorGovernessChild Caretaker
BridesmaidBride’s AttendantHeadmasterPrincipal
BrotherhoodFellowship, CamaraderieHorseman, HorsewomanRider, Equestrian
Businessman, BusinesswomanBusinesspersonHousewifeHomemaker
Cabin BoyCabin AttendantMaidHouse Cleaner
Cameraman, CamerawomanCamera OperatorMaiden NameFamily Name, Birth Name
Career WomanCareer ProfessionalMan Of LettersScholar
Chairman, ChairwomanChair Person, ChairManhandleRough Up
Common ManCommonerMankindHumanity
CongressmanMember Of Congress, Congress PersonMother EarthPlanet Earth
Cowboy, CowgirlCowhandMother TongueNative Language
CraftsmanArtisan, CraftspersonOffice BoyMessenger
DoormanDoorkeeper, Door AttendantShowmanshipStage Presence
FatherhoodParenthoodUncle SamUnited States
FiremanFirefighterWatchmanSecurity Guard
ForefathersAncestorsYoung ManYouth, Teenager

Preschooling and gender neutral language

  • Now the whole point of discussing the coining of the Swedish word ‘Hen’ is that a number of preschools and its teachers in Sweden have consciously stepped over to gender neutral words as they believe that it aids in diminishing gender stereotypes.
  • In simple words it leads to a marked decrease in the young kids making gender specific assumptions.

For e.g. – Sam is a boy and he works in the fields.
Jane is a girl and she cooks food in the kitchen.
The emphasis here is on the assumption that Sam is a boy and hence that is why he works in the field!

  • Preschool practitioners believe that stress on gender specifics reduces opportunities available to children due to gender specifications.

Why should Sam, the boy, be assumed to be working in the field and Jane, the girl, be cooking in the kitchen?
Instead, we could say: I am Sam and I work in the field.
Such a verbal tone opens up infinite possibilities for Sam. Sam works in the field but he could work anywhere else too!
By simply de-emphasising the gender differences, we open up a whole world of possibilities for our young children.

Gender neutral language and parenting:

  • A number of surveys and studies also reveal that parents’ behaviour towards children is traditionally gender specific.

As for instance, when greeting three year old Sam you are more likely to shake hands with him and while greeting three year old Jane you are most likely to pick her up in your arms and greet her with a kiss!

Food for thought:
At Little Millennium, we engage our kids in a variety of activities such as ,

  • Doll washing
  • Car washing
  • Role play in the kitchen
  • We encourage your children to participate and enjoy each activity. Do the same at home too. Do not curtail their natural responses by bringing in gender stereotypes
  • If it’s a car washing Sunday, involve Sarika in the entire process. Talk to Sarika about changing engine oil, flat tyres etc. If Sarika has to drive a car, she better know all that goes along with it.
  • If it’s clothes washing Sunday, involve Shiv totally. Teach Shiv the importance of keeping clothes clean and crisp. If Shiv wants to be well turned out, then keeping his clothes washed and clean is his responsibility!
  • Continue the process after they step out of preschool as well.
  • Do not delay putting Sarika behind the wheel and hasten putting Shiv instead. Driving is a skill, it is not gender based. It is necessity based. The
  • Do not laugh off Shiv’s passion towards baking as a joke in the family. Nurture it.
  • Remember, language influences thought patterns and thought patterns determine responses. Responses form behaviour and behaviour defines personality.
  • Do not confuse the gender neutral coinage with feminism or chauvinism. It is not a battle nor a war of sexes. It is simply about evolving and paving a world of limitless possibilities for our children. Be it a boy or a girl.

Happy parenting 

Do share your views with us.

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