The Significance of All-Gender/Gender-Inclusive Language

The practice of law requires many skills. A primary skill is our mastery of the art of spoken and written communication. The words we choose can impact our clients and our practices. The choices we make show our fellow attorneys and the world what we value. Lawyers and nonlawyers both turn to the American Bar Association (ABA) for standards of how we should run our practices and support our clients. One important value held by the ABA is to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, so that all may rise and succeed. Attorneys and law firms can support this in many ways. One simple and easy way to combine an appreciation of the importance of word choice and a desire to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is to devote some time to revise our documents and convert gender-specific language to all-gender/gender-inclusive language. The use of gendered language has been found to be an indicator of less gender equality. Therefore, the act of revising your documentation to all-gender/gender-inclusive language is a step towards making your practice more inclusive.

Small tweaks to our language usage can go a long way to respect non-binary individuals and may have the additional benefit of increasing overall gender equality.

Many of us support the concept of increasing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. However, you can support the concept of something and still express reservations regarding putting an ideal into practice. One concern regarding the implementation of all-gender/gender-inclusive language is that it is just a temporary trend. A related concern is why invest time, money and other resources into something that we will just need to change again in a short time? Another concern is related to the process of implementing all-gender/gender-inclusive language to assorted documents and websites. All of these concerns can be addressed.

First, let’s address the fallacy that all-gender/gender-inclusive language is a recent trend. The use of all-gender/inclusive language has been around since at least the late 1380s. It has been used in many works of literature. It appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (the late 1380s). It also appears in other works that are part of many required reading lists, including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dickens in both the Pickwick Papers (1836) and Nicholas Nickelby (1839), and George Bernard Shaw‘s Antony and Cleopatra (1898). These are but a few examples of the long history of gender-neutral language.

Resources are available to assist you in updating your documents to all-gender/gender-inclusive language. The ABA’s Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Inclusion is a great resource. You may also reach out to your local bar association’s LGBTQ group. The United Nations Guidelines for Gender-Inclusive Language in English also are another great resource.

The UN guidelines suggest the following when deciding what strategies to use:

  • Take into account the type of text/oral communication, the context, the audience, and the purpose of the communication;
  • Ensure that the text is readable and the text/oral communication clear, fluid, and concise;
  • Seek to combine different strategies throughout the text/oral communication.

Two strategies/best practices that are recommended in the guidelines are:

  • Use non-discriminatory language;
  • Do not make gender visible when it is not relevant to the conversation

Here are some additional practical ways to approach updating to all-gender/gender-inclusive language. All-gender/gender-inclusive word choices include:

  • “One” rather than “she” or “he”
  • “Staff” rather than “manpower”
  • “They/them/their” rather than “he” or “she” ”his” or “hers”

Once you have chosen which words you will use to substitute for gendered words, pick one or two documents for practice. You can do a word search using the word processing program of your choice. You will want to have a second or third set of eyes to confirm you catch everything. Next, decide which category of documents you want to work through. As with any project, it is a good idea to break work down into manageable tasks. A good approach might be your recruitment and hiring materials, as this shows incoming staff that you support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I have worked through this process. I acted as the second set of eyes for a medium-sized document and it took well under an hour for the first and second pass at the document.

The use of all-gender/gender-inclusive language signifies that you and your firm support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Words matter. Choose words that include and empower.

About the Author

Lori Hymowitz is an attorney with Stolle Berne in Portland, OR. Contact Lori on Twitter @HymowitzL.

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