Articles

ABC to inclusive and gender-sensitive communication

Akira Ahola
By Akira Ahola

Many of Wunder‘s values support the idea of including everyone, treating people equally and with the respect. It’s easy to say it out loud, but actions speak louder than words. We wish to grow to be an employer that not only states to be inclusive but also acts accordingly. Sharing information is an effective next step – understanding “why and how” is a solid base for development, regardless of the topic.

ABC to inclusive and gender-sensitive communication

We all have our unique way of communicating and that is what makes us individuals. Along with caring, sharing is one of Wunder’s core values and learning is always beneficial – especially in cases where it can lead to a greater level of empathy and understanding. The following content is for everyone who wishes to learn to communicate in a more inclusive manner.

“I think that if a non-binary person in the role of Head of Marketing and Communications in the IT field does not share knowledge on this topic, then who will? So it is my honor and responsibility to share what I know and my perspective with the fellow Wunderers and with the rest of the world.”

Akira Ahola, Head of Matketing, Wunder

This article is written by our Head of Marketing and Communications, Akira Ahola, and they wrote this content from both personal and professional perspectives. Inclusion, gender-neutrality, and gender-sensitivity -topics include loads of terms, interpretations, and personal views. Even if this guide to best practices (based on the EIGE’s recommendations) is published at our site, it is still just one approach.

By reading this article, you will learn: 

  • The basics of gender-sensitive and gender-neutral communication. And the difference between those two
  • To recognize gender-biased communication and reasoning why that is not the optimal way to communicate
  • About the biggest differences between English, Estonian, Finnish, Latvian languages from a gender point of view
  • To look at the language we use from a new perspective

The vocabulary on the most common terms used in this text is at the end of the article.

If you wish to learn about inclusive, tech-related terms, this Github article is a good source for them.

Why pay attention to gender-neutral and -sensitive communication?

Especially in work-life, there are very few occasions that require expressing the persons’ gender. Calling any person with their name, title or another attribute that refers to what they are doing is polite and highlights the person’s abilities and responsibilities rather than just their gender. The words and phrases we use, shape and build our thinking and the world we live in. The more inclusively we communicate, the more people feel safe, included, heard and welcome. And this is vital for psychological safety which plays an important role in the wellbeing and efficiency of each and every human.

If these soft reasons don’t resonate enough, try the hard reasoning and ask: Can the IT industry afford to exclude experts just because of their gender? Even the latest studies prove that gendered wording in job ads affects the likelihood of women applying for jobs (this study was based on the binary division of gender). To develop the digital we need to include all the experts – this not only helps with the lack of experts but is the key element in building accessible and inclusive digital solutions.

EU and UN level topic – main points introduced in this article

Using inclusive language manifests gender equality. This sort of language supports the idea of women, men, and those who do not conform to the binary gender system, being persons of equal value, dignity, and integrity. Gender equality is an initiative promoted also on EU and UN levels.

Gender-sensitive communication as a matter is recognized (and recommended) also on EU and UN levels. EIGE (European Institute for Gender Equality) has produced a detailed and comprehensive tool kit on this matter, Unesco provides resources for educators, and the UN has a guideline for gender-inclusive communication.

What matters more than one’s ability to adapt inclusive ways to communicate immediately is the honest will to understand why this is important and why one should aim to be more inclusive in the future. In this text, the main focus is on spoken and written communication. This article includes the main points and some best practices with examples (majority from EIGE’s toolkit).

Inclusive communication does not cancel or threaten anyone’s “right to be a man” or “right to be a woman” or anyone’s right to state or show that – quite the opposite. Gender-sensitive comms aim to make the world a place where, e.g., your right to show your emotions or ability to lead is not dependent on your gender and where everyone can feel belonging, safe, and accepted regardless of their gender identity.

How to communicate in a gender-sensitive way?

The main ideas are to communicate:

  • without highlighting the person(s) gender
  • so that the communication does not reinforce gender biasing stereotypes.

There are a few exceptions where highlighting the genders is recommended, but the majority of situations are handled best when using a gender-neutral common nominator for your audience; especially in Western countries, where the level of equality is relatively high.

A term that derives from the action works often well. At Wunder that could be e.g. Wunderers, designers, Talent team members, developers, colleagues, pet owners, wine enthusiasts, Riga folks, etc.

The opposite of gender-sensitive language is gender-discriminatory language. It is good to acknowledge that the more liberal and equal the surrounding cultural environment, the less need for gender sensitivity. Gender-neutrality works even better since it also includes non-binary persons. But recognition is the first step to equality and therefore, it always depends on multiple variables which one (neutral or sensitive) works best.

Three broad categories under which gender-discriminatory language often falls:

  • Stereotypes: assigning gender when gender is unknown or irrelevant as a result of stereotypes.
  • Invisibility and omission: a language that casts the male as the generic norm and keeps women invisible in public life.
  • Subordination and trivialization: language which paints one gender, often women, as inferior or belittles them.

These stereotypes hurt people of all genders by placing expectations on what people should be. (Source: EIGE, page 20: Challenges)

 

Examples of stereotyping and better ways to say the same thing:

“I need to talk to the secretary, is she at the office”
=> “I need to talk to the secretary. Is the secretary at the office?”

(Speaker not being aware of the boss’s gender) “Your boss needs to know he can rely on you.”
=> “Your boss needs to know you are very reliable”. Or “Your boss needs to know you are a person who can be relied on”

“You throw like a girl.”
=>” You do not throw well.”

“The team taking part in the charity obstacle course who were scared of the cold water had to man up and dive in at the first obstacle.”
=> “The team taking part in the charity obstacle course who were scared of the cold water had to be tough and dive in at the first obstacle.”

 

Examples of invisibility and omission and better way to say the same things:

Using ‘man’ to mean all people collectively propagates the invisibility and omission of women; using ‘he’ to represent any given individual does the same.

“Fire is man’s greatest invention”
=> “Fire is humanity’s greatest invention”

“Under the law, all men are equal.”
=> (gender-neutral) “Under the law, all people are equal.”
=> (gender-sensitive, yet binary) “Under the law, all women and men are equal.”
=> (gender-sensitive, inclusive) “Under the law, all people; women, men, and non-binary persons are equal

“Each applicant must submit his resumé.”
=> (gender-neutral) “Each applicant must submit their resumé”
=> (gender-sensitive and inclusive) “Each applicant must submit his, hers or theirs resumé

“The forefathers of today’s villagers used the same methods for catching fish as today’s villagers.”
=> “The ancestors of today’s villagers used the same methods for catching fish as today’s villagers.”

Some job titles:

Gender discriminatory language vs. Gender-neutral language

  • Policeman or Policewoman => Police officer
  • Businessman or Businesswoman => Business executive
  • Repairman => Repairer, technician
  • Steward or Stewardess => Flight attendant
  • Salesman => Salesperson, sales clerk
  • Workman => Worker
  • Fireman or Firewoman => Firefighter

 

Examples of cases, where gender-neutrality is not the optimal solution:

“In 2014, 14% of people aged 18-65 stated that they had experienced sexual violence in the previous year.”
=> “In 2014, 23% of women and 5% of men aged 18-65 stated that they had experienced sexual violence in the previous year.”

“Lithuania is playing well today and likely to win the match. Lithuania’s women will also be playing tomorrow.”
=> “Lithuania’s men are playing well today and likely to win the match. Lithuania’s women will also be playing tomorrow.”

 

Examples of subordination and trivialization and better ways to say the same things:

Subordination and trivialization are ways of using language that reinforce men’s traditional dominance over women or belittle or insult women or persons in minority groups.

“The usherette helped me to my seat just as the actress came on stage.”
=> “The usher helped me to my seat just as the actor came on stage.”

But isn’t this just against all we learnt so far? Why is it not ok to use a suffix that indicates the persons’ gender? Think of the words kitchen vs. kitchenette and novel vs. novelette. Do they appear equal or is the -ette versions something less?

“I’ll get one of the girls from my office to help me move the boxes.”
=> “I’ll get one of the gang from my office to help me move the boxes.”

The language which refers to people unknown to you in terms of endearment (‘My dear’, ‘Darling’, ‘Love’, and ‘Dear’ when used in speech) is patronizing, condescending, and promotes trivialization. These forms should not be used unless the interlocutor has a close relationship with the speaker.

“Oh, darling, let me explain that to you…”
=> “Hey, can I try to explain that to you?”

Linguistic backgrounds in Estonia, Latvia, and Finland (and little elsewhere too)

The Finnish language has only one pronoun for third-person (hän), while in the majority of the languages spoken in the EU (and also the rest of the world) there are defined pronouns for assumed males and assumed females (he & she). Among traditional Finnish first names are also some gender-neutral names (e.g. Lahja, Toivo, Pyry, Syksy, etc). The vast majority of the first names are still associated with either the male or female gender.

Estonian is also among those few languages that have only one pronoun for the third person, (tema). Also in Estonia, there are a few traditional Estonian first names that are used among women and men (e.g. Keit)

In comparison traditional Latvian names are very gender-specific: the majority of male names end with the letter “s” (first name and the last name) while the majority of female names end with either “e” or “a”.

Being gender-specific is a strong characteristic for Russian, Arabic, and Latin-originated languages; so strong that even everyday objects have “gender” or can be “neutral”. The objects can be neutral, but people and many professional titles are either masculine or feminine: nearly always confirming the existing stereotypes for gender roles in each profession.

Vocabulary – most common terms and their meanings:

Gender-neutral vs. gender-sensitive:

Gender-neutral means that the gender(s) are not mentioned. This is the most inclusive way to communicate, given that the surrounding culture is already fairly equal and that there is no need to highlight the participance of women.

Gender-sensitive aims to ensure that women and men are equally mentioned (and treated). Recommended by EIGE policymakers and law-makers should almost always try to use gender-sensitive language, rather than gender-neutral language. This is to ensure the equality of women and men when writing the laws. In patriarchal societies mentioning also women is a big and remarkable step towards equality, and the first step to equality covering also non-binary people.

Example:
“In Afghanistan, A Driver License is an official document certifying that the holder is suitably qualified to drive a motor vehicle or vehicles.”
In this context it is nearly impossible to know whether or not women are able to get the license in the first place (especially when the text continues: “ In Afghanistan, no person can drive a motor vehicle in any public place unless he holds a valid Driver License issued to him, authorizing him to drive a vehicle of that particular category.”)

Gender vs sex

Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys that are socially constructed. Gender interacts with but is different from sex, which refers to the different biological and physiological characteristics of females, males, and intersex persons, such as chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs. Gender and sex are related to but different from gender identity. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply felt, internal, and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth. (Source: UN)

Sexual orientation

Gender identity and sexual orientation are different facets of identity. Everyone has a gender identity and a sexual orientation, but a person’s gender does not determine a person’s sexual orientation.

LGBT

Comes from the words Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. LGBT movement is working towards equal rights of persons, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. LGBT movement is seen to be started in Stonewall Riot in the USA, 1969 when police raided a gay club, causing catalyst phenomena on LGBT-rights. (Source: history.com)

LGBTQAI+

The diversity within the gender and sexual orientation are more recognized today than ever in modern, western history. Today the most inclusive abbreviation for the minorities also covers: Queer/Questioning, Asexual, Intersexual, and + -sign stands for those genders and sexual orientations that are not included in the mentioned ones. When communicating with target groups that include persons from gender and/or sex minority groups, this abbreviation is recommended.

 

Gender minorities – and CIS

If you know someone who identifies as something else than their assumed gender and that rises questions (e.g. on how they wish to be called), I personally encourage you to approach them with your questions.

Important to know and remember that any personal questions regarding one’s body should be very carefully considered. If you are not too familiar with all the terms, let them know that too. This way they know that you are willing to learn and they also know that you are not trying to be mean with possibly not the most precise terms. These sorts of questions (as any private and personal matters) should be handled without “audience” and pressure. We all humans are different and there hardly is any rule that 100% works for everyone in all scenarios, but in the vast majority of cases, kind asking brings better results than guessing and assumptions.

Transgender

A transgender woman lives as a woman today but was assigned to be male when she was born. A transgender man lives as a man today but was assigned to be female when he was born. Some transgender people identify as neither male nor female nor as a combination of male and female. There are a variety of terms that people who aren’t entirely male or entirely female use to describe their gender identity, like non-binary or genderqueer. OBS: Not all non-binary persons are transgender and a remarkable percentage of transgender people are non-binary. (Source: transequality.org)

Intersex

People sometimes confuse being transgender and being intersex. If transgender refers to one’s internal knowledge of gender identity, then intersex deals with a person’s reproductive or sexual anatomy. A transgender person is usually born with a body and genes that match a typical male or female, but they know their gender identity to be different. Intersex people have reproductive anatomy or genes that don’t fit typical definitions of male or female, which is often discovered at birth. (Source: transequality.org)

Non-Binary

Most people – including most transgender people – are either male or female. But some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “man” or “woman,” or “male” or “female.” For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time.

People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common. Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more. None of these terms mean exactly the same thing – but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female. (Source: transequality.org)

Most non-binary persons prefer to use the third person pronoun they/them/theirs.

CIS, cis-gender

Cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis-, meaning ‘on this side of’, which is the opposite of trans-, meaning ‘across from’ or ‘on the other side of’. CIS is the abbreviation and in short means a person whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth. The alternative option for cis is non-trans. Using the term cis is not totally problematic-free, since it homogenizes cis-persons and creates a binary narrative. (A phenomena bit similar to gender-sensitive vs. gender-neutral: the bigger the level of equality, the less need to create any “boxes”).

A couple of curiosities, important points, and fun facts

A bonus section, cos who wouldn’t love little extra, bits n pieces of curiosities and some trivial information.

  • Gender and presentations of it are interesting phenomena that touch us all – and are affected by the surrounding culture. Here are a couple of points that might come as a surprise; just to prove that the language and culture are in constant evolution – and ok, a couple of totally unnecessary, yet entertaining points as well.
  • Alternative to “they” as in neutral versions of the third-person pronoun: Ze, Hir, Hirs, Hirself. This option is not too widespread; at least not yet.
  • Nowadays a Labour law in Latvia forbids using only feminine and masculine forms for most of the professions (excepting the cases when belonging to a particular gender is well reasoned). Example: “programmētājs” (developer in LV) is a masculine form, “programmētāja” is the feminine form, so now in the job add they have to write that the vacancy is for “programmētājs/ programmētāja” so that both genders are included.
  • Worthy to remember that those in minorities are “just normal people”. This means that belonging to one (or more) minority groups does not mean that the person would be free of any phobias or not able to discriminate. One can be gay/lesbian and racist, non-binary yet homophobic, a person of color can be transphobic, bisexual who states transwomen are not women, etc. Persons in minorities can also (and often do) suffer from minority stress, due to the more hostile and less accepting environment that normative/majority people face.
    Vagina in french, le vagin (le= masculin), yet also penis in french= le pénis. Interesting to say at least…
  • Among millennials, it’s becoming more and more common to correct if someone is using a gender-discriminating term. So gender-discriminatory language is not only harmful and excluding, but also makes the next generation think you speak in an old-fashioned, unpleasant, and discriminating way.
  • EIGE (European Institute for Gender Equality) is located in Vilnius, Lithuania.
  • Rudolf the Reindeer most probably is a female – since the male reindeers drop their horns late in fall and female reindeers in the springtime.
  • Red and pink (and even high heels) have been worn by men for centuries.
  • Finland is having its first three-year season as a full member of the UN Human Rights Council starting from 2022.
  • Countries that recognize a third gender (the list might not cover all the countries and the legislation is on constant updates):
    Iceland, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia all allow citizens to legally identify as a third gender. (Source: seeker.com and Wikipedia)
  • Switzerland allows simple legal gender transition starting 1st of Jan, 2022.
  • List of international non-binary names.
  • Popular Finnish first name for men, Kari is 100% women’s name in Norwegian 😀
  • A couple of non-binary celebrities: Miley Cirus, Cara Delevingne, Destiny (aka Steven Kenneth Bonnell II), Demi Lovato.
  • Some Native American tribes have recognized up to five different genders.

Would you like to work in an environment that pays attention to inclusivity and psychological safety? If your answer is yes, check out our open positions

 

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