Return to journal

From UN guidance to gendered grammar: how to dip your toe into inclusive writing

Rob Heads 02 March 2022

An orange typewriter on a table

A few weeks ago, Rob Heads took a look at the importance of practicing inclusive writing. Here he starts to unpack some of the challenges brought by language – and some potential sources of help.


Companies, not governments, are increasingly seen as having the greatest potential for furthering social issues. While this is undoubtedly true in the field of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), clients are increasingly asking us not just about the specifics of what actions to take, but also about how to talk about them – the language to use and the tone to strike.


Some companies are making strong steps towards more inclusive writing – Netflix and Zalando in their French advertising, for example – but as yet no one’s written a rulebook for best practice in communications or corporate reporting. Why? Well, maybe that’s because, given the pace of change right now, any rulebook might need to be ripped up and rewritten as soon as it’s published.


By way of an example, take a look at the issue of gender and identity and the specifics of language. In English, we’ve seen the appearance of small changes such as the increasing use of non-gendered job roles (such as referring to actors rather than actors and actresses) and the incorporation of gender-neutral terms such as ‘they’ when referring to someone whose gender identity might be non-binary or unknown.


But while English has lost much of its grammatical gender, this exercise is more complex in countries where grammar is still inherently gendered. In French, Spanish, and Arabic (to name just a few) groups of mixed genders are referred to with the traditional use of the masculine gender - even if there’s only one man among a number of women.


To tackle this issue, some people and organisations in countries with gendered grammar have begun to adapt their language. Some are co-opting words to be more inclusive (such as has been been the case in English with job roles). Others are developing new ways of de-gendering words, such as students in Argentina championing replacing the masculine ‘o’ or the feminine ‘a’ with the gender-neutral ‘e’ in certain Spanish words, or the introduction of ‘hen’ in Swedish as a gender-neutral pronoun alternative to the male ‘han’ and female ‘hon’ pronouns. Elsewhere, rules are being bent to prioritise gender-neutral terminology. In German, for example, some are taking the untraditional step of using the neutral grammatical gender when referring to people – noticeably bodies such as the City of Hanover and the Federal Justice Ministry. 


But in relative terms these are still early, tentative steps emerging organically from both enlightened organisations and the communities they serve. How can more organisations begin to confidently dip their toes in the water when so little concrete recommendations on inclusive writing or reporting exist? For those translating content into multiple languages with gendered grammar, presenting a consistent and inclusive voice will be an even more pressing issue.


The UN connects inclusive writing to the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, Gender Equality, and has developed a resource to help its staff to communicate in a gender-inclusive way in its six official languages. It’s worth noting that, in tying the topic directly to the SDGs, the UN has made a clear link between inclusive writing and one of the key purposes of corporate reporting: the demonstration of efforts being made to achieve ‘a better and more sustainable future for all’.


Gender inclusion in writing, whilst the focus of today’s article, is only one aspect of inclusive writing which has seen attention in recent years. This exercise can, and should, be extended to the language we use when discussing topics such as ethnicity or disability.


So what does all this mean for you and your organisation? Well, we’ve contributed our own thoughts. Our recent report, Driving D&I  looks at what good D&I reporting looks like and preaches an authentic approach that closely aligns communications with your organisation's plans, goals and values. Elsewhere, in Demystifying D&I, we looked at avoiding dangerous cliché in content and design.  


Our first and most simple advice on this is to free time to invest in this, starting with a thorough look at all your communications to establish if there’s room for more inclusive language. Think too about building a curious, open communications culture that is open to listening, feedback and change. Twain said ‘actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often’. The words you use shape your reputation: this investment will help you make sure your language do your actions justice.


Looking for more help? Check out our ‘Driving D&I’ hub for more perspectives on tackling the gender pay gap, getting D&I accountability right, reporting and examples of best practice in communications.


By Rob Heads, Analyst