Radboud University's ambition is to promote a safe, inclusive academic community that embraces and promotes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI plan, 2022). Language is key to inclusion: by using certain words, we can make everyone feel more included. This guide serves as a tool to become aware of the impact language can have and how to use inclusive language, so that we do not exclude anyone or use harmful stereotypes.
1. Aim for gender-inclusive language
a. Use gender-neutral words to address people
When we address people with e.g. ‘Sir/Madam’ or ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, we exclude non-binary and genderqueer people. We can use neutral forms of address instead, such as ‘Dear reader’ or ‘Dear students’. Other neutral words include: child, partner, user, resident, person, colleague, people.
Many words in English are divided into masculine and feminine forms, like 'father' or 'mother', ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, ‘guys’, ‘husband’ or ‘girlfriend’. For this, you can use the neutral alternatives 'parent', ‘sibling’, ‘friends’ or ‘partner’.
b. Avoid masculine and/or feminine generic pronouns and he/she
'We speak of too much work pressure when it affects a professor’s functioning in his work or private situation'. This sentence reinforces the stereotype that professors are male due to the masculine generic pronoun ‘his’. Note that opting for ‘he/she’ excludes non-binary and genderqueer people. You can use the plural pronoun they/them/their in English as a neutral pronoun, even when you refer to a single person: 'We speak of too much work pressure when it affects a professor’s functioning in their work or private situation'. Another solution is using plural (‘professors’) instead of singular nouns.
c. Use neutral words instead of masculine/feminine forms where possible
Many English words and expressions refer to the masculine gender, like ‘mankind’, ‘to man up’ and ‘man-made’. These words reinforce male bias and maintain masculine stereotypes. Many words have neutral synonyms, like ‘humankind’, ‘to get it together’ and ‘artificial’.
Especially words for professions and jobs tend to have male forms, like ‘ombudsman’, ‘policeman’, ‘spokesman’ or ‘chairman’, even though these professions are often practiced by all kinds of people. Here too, neutral alternatives can be used, like ‘ombuds official’ or ‘chair’. Terms such as ‘director’, ‘manager’ are now considered neutral, as are ‘supervisor’ and ‘team leader’.
In some cases, two words for a job or profession exist: a neutral/male form and a female form, e.g. ‘actor’ / ‘actress’ and ‘alumnus’/’alumna’. The neutral form is recommended. The more we use neutral forms, the less we will associate it with a certain gender. In time, this promotes gender-inclusive language. When it is not clear from the context to which gender the ‘neutral’ form refers, many readers tend to have a male bias. If you want to avoid this, you can make the gender clear from the context (if known), or avoid the gendered word altogether by e.g. using plural (‘alumni’).
2. Address people correctly
Everyone likes to be addressed appropriately. However, you cannot tell how to correctly identify a person’s gender from their name or appearance. If you don’t know and don’t want to ask, use neutral forms of address such as ‘Dear colleague’ and use neutral pronouns ‘they/them/their’. If you know their first name, use e.g. ‘Dear Gijs Jansen’ instead of ‘Dear Mr. Jansen’. Refrain from using gendered pronouns, such as Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Miss.
Always ask yourself if it is necessary to ask for gender details, for example when using forms. In most cases, this information is not required and it is better to not ask for it from a privacy standpoint. If you do need to collect this information, include an open option and a 'prefer not to disclose' option.
3. Do not emphasize irrelevant aspects of someone’s identity
If not necessary, don’t emphasize someone's gender expression, colour, religion, sexual orientation, generation/age, mental or physical abilities, level of education or socio-economic status. In the sentence "The black professor addressed the differences between...", the fact that the professor is black is irrelevant. When you do add something about someone’s identity, you can check whether this is inclusive by turning it around: would you also write about ‘the white professor’?
4. Name a person, not their identity
If it is relevant to mention an aspect of someone’s identity, aim to use person-first and not identity-first language. The latter usually involves nouns to describe a person, which has been found to reinforce stereotypes and portrays one aspect of someone’s identity as their only defining characteristic. For example: