How do we assess the social and cultural significance the words we choose? And what is the impact of using gender-neutral language in our communications?
These questions were the subject of a spirited panel discussion at last week’s Manitoba Bar Association Midwinter Conference in Winnipeg. Dr. Jila Ghomeshi, syntactician and author of Grammar Matters and Sandra Petersson, Research Manager of the Alberta Law Reform Institute participated in the discussion moderated by Patricia Lane on how lawyers can reflect gender neutrality in their use of language.
Ms Lane referred to the business and practical reasons for using gender neutral language as outlined in her article The case for gender neutral language, (published in the July 2012 issue of CBA’s Touchstones) and directed the discussion instead toward the historical and cultural factors that account for the lack of gender neutrality in our modern discourse.
Sandra Petersson described how legal language evolved to include the ubiquitous triplets (e.g. give, devise and bequeath), with the effect of bloating legislation and ultimately, leading to the word-saving provisions now common in interpretive clauses declaring that use of words importing male persons, include female persons, and vice versa.
She advocated the following options for achieving gender neutrality in drafting documents:
- Using “he or she”
- Avoiding pronouns through repetition of the relevant noun
- Alternating between “he” and “she”
- Use of “they” as a 3rd person singular pronoun
Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, leading some in the audience to throw up their hands in frustration and, I suspect, to continue on in their writing without regard to gender neutrality.
Ms Petersson pointed to the Department of Justice Drafting Guidelines as setting out the three principles to apply:
These Guidelines provide a useful starting point in drafting documents with a view to achieving gender neutrality.
Jila Ghomeshi questioned whether gender neutrality is even achievable given social context and expectations. She pointed to the problem of binary categorization which pervades our use of language: male and female; ladies and gentlemen; master and mistress; sir and madam. Historically, the use of these parallel terms has developed in such a way as to reflect cultural devaluation of women and the feminine. For example, the terms madam or mistress no longer connote a feminine version of sir or master, but have taken on meanings that imply impropriety or lesser value.
Another issue with the use of binary categories in language is the reinforcement of an exclusionary either/or perspective: if you’re not one thing, you’re the other. This approach leaves no room for alternative classifications and can result in marginalization of those who don’t fit neatly within the two categories.
Ultimately, there were no neat answers provided to the questions from the audience as to how best address the issue of gender neutrality in legal communications. My takeaway was that I should strive to apply the principles of accuracy, equality and professionalism while taking into account readability, the audience for whom I am writing and the purpose or context of the communication.
The Canadian Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum has set up a committee to prepare a recommendation for general reference on gender-neutral language. It will be interesting to see their recommendations.