I recently read an article on founder equity in start-ups (don’t ask!) in which the author always referred to start-up founders as “he.”
This not-so-subtle dismissal of female founders was annoying, and it made me want to get better at using gender neutral language when I speak in public.
English Is Not a Gender Neutral Language
Not to get too wonky, but you’ve probably noticed that English doesn’t have a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.
When you’re talking about a group of people, you can refer to “them,” and it’s understood that “they” might be any combination of male, female, or other-type persons. But when you’re talking about a single individual, your choices are “he,” “she,” or “it.” Period.
So it’s worth noting that, even when your intentions are good, there’s a technical problem you’ll have to solve.
I do that by using the plural (many people) pronouns “they,” “their,” or “them” when referring to just one person.
This is one of the options you have when speaking in public; another is to formulate your statement so that it doesn’t need a gendered pronoun.
That’s easy when describing many occupations:
I complimented my server on the meal.
Our usual mail carrier must be out today, because the mail delivery was a mess.
The flight attendant made this hilarious safety announcement.
In other cases, you may have to stretch your brain to create smoother ways of keeping things gender-neutral, but it gets easier with practice:
Please go to the store and ask whoever’s working for a refund.
Or: Please go to the store and get a refund.
I need to talk to the principal. Is he or she available to speak with a parent?
Or: Is the principal available to speak with a parent?
The national youth chess champion is named Chase. He or she is also president of his or her high school junior high class.
Or: The national youth chess champion, Chase, is also a high school junior class president.
So far so good, right? But gender neutral language doesn’t just mean eschewing gendered pronouns.
“Gender Neutral Language” Also Means Transcending Gender Stereotypes
Until recently, the mainstream assumption was that (a) there are only two genders, (b) everyone fits neatly into one of them, and (c) you can tell which one they fit into by looking at them.
(Yes, I just used the plural pronoun “they” to refer to one person, a/k/a “everyone.”)
But even in the mainstream, those assumptions have been dashed, as I noticed when someone recently introduced themselves to me as a “straight, cisgender drag queen.” Clearly I need to get out more, because it took me a minute to translate that this person:
- Prefers sex partners of the opposite gender;
- Identifies with/embraces the gendered body they were born into; in this case (as far as I could tell), male; and
- Performs, or appears in public, as a female.
Only one of those adjectives has to do with gender (“cisgender,” which sociologists Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity”).
But if you sometimes find today’s nuanced sexual/social identities daunting (and even if you don’t!), these concrete tips can help increase your ability to use gender neutral language and assumptions:
Gender Neutral Public Speaking Tips
1. Don’t assume you know the gender of the person you’re speaking to (or, if you want to be like that, “to whom you’re speaking”). Even when people aren’t trying to be ambiguous, how they look and how they identify can be quite different. Just as you can’t see who is gay or straight, you can’t reliably see who is cis- or transgender.
2. Use gender-neutral language to open the door to disclosure. Referring to yourself as “cis” or “trans” tells the person or people who are listening that you’ve given this matter some thought, and makes them more likely to disclose their identification.
(As with almost everything in public speaking, this holds true whether you’re having a private conversation or speaking to an audience of hundreds.)
3. When you call on people for Q&A, identify them by where they’re sitting or what they’re wearing, not by their presumed gender:
- Instead of calling on “the woman in the red dress,” try calling on the “person in the back,” or “the person wearing that beautiful red dress,” or even “you — yes, you!” (a New York move that works best with a friendly smile).
- Instead of calling on the “tall man,” trying call on the “tall person” or the “person by the water fountain.”
Why Does Gender Neutral Language Matter for Public Speaking?
Many people think that public speaking is about “saying things well” or “being confident onstage,” but it’s really much more than that.
When we stand up to speak in public, we’re modeling reality for our audience. We’re telling (and showing) them what we think is important to know, and where we think they ought to focus.
We can use that power to reinforce outdated stereotypes… or we can use it to reinforce reality.
What is that reality? It’s that — with every passing day — gendered language is less accurate, less equitable, and less reflective of the real world we live in.
So yes, it can be hard to let go of gendered language (particularly when we’re under pressure; for example, giving a high-stakes talk, or speaking to a large group).
But like all public speaking skills, this one gets easier with practice.
And it’s well worth the effort, so why not start now?
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