Reasons why it’s important to use non-gendered language
Warning: uncharacteristic non-photography related post incoming!
A while back an organization I work with asked me to write up something about using non-gendered languages when addressing groups of people as a teacher, performer and presenter. This is something I give a lot of thought to in my personal and professional life, so I was glad when they asked me to put together some information and suggestions for everyone to consider. I modified what I wrote for them to be applicable to anyone who teaches or does presentations to groups of people. Sharing that here!
I’m going to delve into 3 different phrases using gendered language that I see happening often in addressing groups whether it’s by teaching, performing etc. Within those 3 phrases, I’ll give examples of non-gendered alternatives, and I’ll explain why I think it is important to work towards shifting that language. Making these changes is challenging so let’s be compassionate of mistakes as we try to integrate them.
1. You Guys
Many people use this one a lot when addressing a group.
Most people know “you guys” refers to everyone. However, even if one person checks out or feels uncomfortable in their skin because of it, we are doing a disservice.
Why it’s important to find alternatives to “You Guys”
-While “You guys” is generally accepted to mean “everyone”, it centers everyone masculine. Defaulting to “you guys” is perpetuating that way of prioritizing masculinity in this culture that already does that. We don’t need to be supporting that.
-A non-native english speaker may hear “you guys” in a presentation and not understand it can mean “everybody” and feel the presentation isn’t for her.
-“You guys” can be erasive of women/girls, transgender people, and to people with non-binary genders.
The good news is that about 90% of the time when I hear it in our presentations, “guys” is an extra word that could be taken out without changing the meaning and “you” works the same way on its own.
-There is something I’m very excited to show YOU(not you guys).
-Now we are going to teach you about art projects that YOU(not you guys) can build tonight
In other cases where it would sound weird and change the meaning to just say YOU, there are many gender neutral alternatives. Depending on each case, some would work better than others. Here are a handful of options for you to consider as starting points and see what feels good to you in various situations:
-Alright everybody (not you guys) clap along to the music.
-I need everyone(not you guys) to stop talking so we can learn about this photographer.
-Let’s talk about safety, I’m gonna give you all a quiz: will you use unsafe materials for your projects?
-Listen up friends, it’s time to hear about the string family!
**All this said, I want to acknowledge that this is hard because English just doesn’t have a common non-gendered group ‘you’ pronoun. Different regions have come up with alternatives. There is Y’all, Youz, Yinz, You Guys etc. I recognize that it is hard and requires some effort and encourage us to try to come up with versions that includes everyone.
2. Assuming gender when calling on members of the audience/class.
Another thing that I’ve seen happen in classes and interactive presentations is calling on and identifying people in the class by assuming their gender. For example, “that boy in the red shirt”, “the girl in the back”.
Alternative would be, just identify the student by what they are wearing.
-A round of applause for the person in the pink shirt who said the air
-The student in the unicorn hat.
-That person with the pigtails.
I’ve seen progressive organizations intentionally call on girls for science related questions and emphasize when a girl gets an answer right since there is such an imbalance of gender in science fields. But I don’t think we need to specifically say we are calling on girls to elevate that point. Simply based on which students we invite to call speak, we are elevating their voices in the room and giving them the experience of adding to the show. If someone is a girl who gets called on for a science question, she and the rest of the audience, will notice. We don’t have to say, “I’m going to call on a girl for this one”, or “a round of applause for the girl in pink who answered correctly” to get that point across.
Reasons why not assuming gender when calling on students is important:
With many young kids we just can’t tell gender. I have been at shows where a student gets called on and identified by their gender incorrectly and says, “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl!” Ouch. Additionally, with non-binary and transgender kids, getting misgendered can be extra harmful.
Even if we call on a student who isn’t transgender, and identify them correctly by their gender, there could very likely be a transgender or non-binary kid in the audience who shrinks in their seat a little bit and now will not consider raising their hand to give an answer because they don’t want to get called on if that means calling attention to their gender and possibly incorrectly identifying them.
3. Ladies and Gentlemen
Using this phrase immediately sets the tone that we are in a gendered environment. Additionally, not everyone identifies as a man or a woman. I have a non-binary friend and they said that as soon as someone says “Ladies and Gentlemen”, they check out because they don’t feel the conversation is for them. Lastly, many women don’t like to be called ladies. Ladylike behaviour implies a certain kind of femininity. If you google “ladylike”, the definition is: “appropriate or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.” Who wants to be well-bred and decorous?!
-Friends and enemies
-One and all
-Humans of Long Island/NYC/this elementary school
Thank you for reading this far! It’s almost over, I promise.
We live in a world that centers men and speak a language that centers men and minimizes women and non-binary people in ways that we aren’t always even aware of. A lot of this language is ingrained, habitual and will take effort to change. It will be hard, require slowing down and doing some mental work to change. Language is a deep seeded thing and change will not happen overnight! But it is so worth it if we can help someone to feel better in their skin. Even if we use gendered language one less time than usual, is an improvement. Little by little we can work on it. If doing good work in important progressive areas is important to us, that I am sure we can do better with this area as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read this! Let’s keep this conversation going.
Have a great day folks!