23 November 2021

Women's equality won't be achieved by scrapping gender-neutral language


Binary language cannot solve the gender problem. In order to address an academic culture structured around masculinity, much greater changes are needed, finds Postdoctoral Research Associate Saartje Tack.

Professor Jacintha Ellers laments in her opinion that in 2021, academia is still an environment dominated by masculinity and men. I commend Ellers for her courage in speaking up about this important issue. Indeed, as feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed has argued, too often, those who expose a problem come to be viewed as the problem. What I am much less willing to accept, however, is her argument that it is the use of gender-neutral language that reinforces male and masculine dominance in academia as it erases both women and non-binary people.

Language is not static

Thus, Ellers not only takes issue with they/them pronouns, but also with the recommendation that lecturers no longer start their lectures with ‘ladies and gentlemen’ but should opt for the more neutral and inclusive ‘good morning students’, or ‘goeiemorgen studenten’ in Dutch. In a gendered language such as Dutch, she argues, the American push towards neutrality does not work. The term studenten, which is the plural form of the word for male student (student, whereas the female form is studente) confirms the notion that all students are male and as such renders students who are women or non-binary invisible.

What Ellers fails to acknowledge is that language and meanings change. The word student in Dutch no longer refers solely to a ‘male person who is thirsty for knowledge’, as Ellers describes it, but has long been used to refer to any student regardless of sex or gender. Ellers furthermore conflates the grammatical organisation of the Dutch language with processes of meaning-making. For instance, the word ‘kindergarten teacher’ in English for many still brings images of women to mind, not because it is grammatically gendered female but as a result of social learning. The word studenten, then, no longer erases women from academia.

Let me be clear, I do not deny that there is political use in asserting women’s presence in male-dominated environments. But ending women’s oppression should not – and cannot – be achieved through means that exclude those who do not subscribe to or are granted access to the (cis)gender binary.

Women, not ladies

Yet such exclusion is precisely what underpins Ellers’ proposed solution which consists of scrapping both ‘ladies and gentlemen’ and ‘dear students’ from our vernacular and replace it with ‘ladies through [to] gentlemen’. Aside from the flawed assumptions around grammar and meaning it is based on, this phrase is problematic in a number of ways. If we take seriously Ellers’ presumption that meaning does not change, one might wonder if encouraging the use of the term ‘ladies’, which has historically been used to keep women in their rightful, submissive, place, is helpful in achieving greater equality for women in male-dominated spaces. More importantly, though, the phrase reaffirms the unequal status quo. Its continued emphasis on men and women reaffirms these as normal, natural categories. While the ‘through [to]’ might be well-meaning, it positions other ways of gendered being as not worth mentioning in their specificity and thus is complicit in their erasure. As such, the phrase does little to question – and in doing so reinforces – the gender binary that is ultimately at the root of the problem that Ellers’ (cl)aims to address.

Thoughtless and tone-deaf

In recent years, ‘gender critical feminists’ have staged countless attacks on trans and non-binary people whom they consider dangerous to cisgender women and a direct threat to cis women’s equality. In this context, Ellers’ suggestion that gender-neutral language aimed at promoting the inclusion of non-binary and trans people contributes to the discrimination of women in academia is, at best, thoughtless and tone-deaf.

In order to truly address an academic culture structured around masculinity, much greater changes are needed. Gendered problems that require our attention are, just to give a few examples, the gendered division of labour in families and its impact on employment, the timing of important meetings, the availability of childcare at conferences, the impact of company culture on hiring processes, the division of pastoral and administrative tasks within departments, diversity amongst speakers at symposia…  This focus on a few gender-neutral phrases and words which are still not commonly used in the Netherlands obscures far broader institutional and societal intersectional problems around gender inequality.

Saartje Tack is Postdoctoral Research Associate, Sociology



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