Guidelines for gender-inclusive language in English

These Guidelines include a number of strategies to help United Nations staff use gender-inclusive language. They may be applied to any type of communication, whether it is oral or written, formal or informal, or addressed to an internal or external audience.

When deciding what strategies to use, United Nations staff should:

  • 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.

Gender in English

In English, there is a difference between “grammatical gender”, “gender as a social construct” (which refers to the roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society at a certain time considers appropriate for men or women) and “sex” as a biological characteristic of living beings.

English has very few gender markers: the pronouns and possessives (he, she, her and his); and some nouns and forms of address. Most English nouns do not have grammatical gender forms (teacher, president), whereas a few nouns are specifically masculine or feminine (actor/actress, waiter/waitress). Some nouns that once ended in -man now have neutral equivalents that are used to include both genders (police officer for policeman/policewoman, spokesperson for spokesman, chair/chairperson for chairman).

A challenge for gender-inclusive communication in English is the use of the masculine form by default. For example, “Every Permanent Representative must submit his credentials to Protocol.”

Best practices/strategies

A number of strategies can be applied, when speaking or writing in English, to be more gender-inclusive:

1.1 Forms of address

When referring to or addressing specific individuals, use forms of address and pronouns that are consistent with their gender identity.

For United Nations staff members, you may check the intranet or the organizational or staff directory. If the staff member appears as “Ms.”, that is the form of address that should be used for her, and female pronouns are appropriate. Alternatively, and if the situation permits, you may ask the persons you are addressing or writing about what pronoun and form of address should be used for them.

Note for United Nations staff members who draft texts to be translated: If you are the author of a text that is going to be translated, and your text is referring to a specific person, please let translators know what the gender of that person is so they can use appropriate language in their translations. This is crucial for languages such as Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish.

There should also be consistency in the way women and men are referred to: if one of them is addressed by their name, last name, courtesy title, or profession, the other one should be as well.

Less inclusive: More inclusive:
“Professor Smith (surname and title for a man) and Madeline (first name for a woman) will attend the luncheon.” “Professor Smith and Professor Jones will attend the luncheon (surname and title for both).”

Ms. or Mrs.?

Care should be taken to use the form of address preferred by each individual. However, when that preference is not known, precedence is given to Ms. over Mrs., as the former is more inclusive and can refer to any woman, regardless of marital status

1.2 Avoid gender-biased expressions or expressions that reinforce gender stereotypes

Discriminatory examples:
  • “She throws/runs/fights like a girl.”
  • “In a manly way.”
  • “Oh, that’s women’s work.”
  • “Thank you to the ladies for making the room more beautiful.”
  • “Men just don’t understand.”
Less inclusive: More inclusive:
“Guests are cordially invited to attend with their wives.” “Guests are cordially invited to attend with their partners.”
“Fathers babysit their children.” “Fathers care for their children.”

How do I know if I am using discriminatory language?

Reverse the gender: Would reversing the designation or the term from masculine to feminine or vice versa change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence? Would it make the sentence sound odd?

Examples:

  • “Women should not seek out leadership positions.”
  • “Men cannot do two things at the same time.”

2.1 Using feminine and masculine pronouns

“Pairing” is the use of both feminine and masculine forms (he or she; her or his). It is a strategy that may be used when the author/speaker wants to explicitly make both women and men visible. It is advisable not to overuse this strategy in English, however, as it may be distracting to the reader, in particular in narrative texts. It may also create inconsistencies or render the text less accurate — for example, in legal texts.

The feminine and masculine forms can be alternated throughout the text. This strategy should be used with caution, however, in particular when its use may affect the meaning of the text, cause confusion or be distracting to the reader. It may be more appropriate to alternate masculine and feminine forms by paragraph or section, rather than by sentence or phrase.

Example: “When a staff member accepts an offer of employment, he or she must be able to assume that the offer is duly authorized. To qualify for payment of the mobility incentive, she or he must have five years’ prior continuous service on a fixed-term or continuing appointment.”

2.2 Using two different words

In cases in which highlighting gender would make the sentence more inclusive, two separate words can be used. This strategy should be used only when popular beliefs or preconceptions may obscure the presence or action of either gender.

Examples:
  • “Boys and girls should attend the first cooking class with their parents.”
  • “All of the soldiers, both men and women, responded negatively to question 5 in the survey.”

3.1 Use gender-neutral words

Less inclusive More inclusive
“Mankind” “Humankind”; “humanity”; “human race”
“Plans to outsource some 19 services have not proceeded at the anticipated pace, as there are significant manpower shortages.” “Plans to outsource some 19 services have not proceeded at the anticipated pace, as there are significant staffing shortages."”
“Man-made” “Artificial”; “human-caused”

3.2 Using plural pronouns/adjectives

In informal writing, such as emails, plural pronouns may be used as a shortcut to ensure gender inclusiveness. Such strategies are not recommended in formal writing.

Example: “Before submitting your document, send it to the focal point for their review; they will return it to you with comments.”

3.3 Use the pronoun one

Less inclusive More inclusive
“A staff member in Antarctica earns less than he would in New York.” “A staff member in Antarctica earns less than one in New York.”

3.4 Use the relative pronoun who

Less inclusive More inclusive
“If a complainant is not satisfied with the board’s decision, he can ask for a rehearing.” “A complainant who is not satisfied with the board’s decision can ask for a rehearing.”

3.5 Use a plural antecedent

When referring to generic subjects, plural antecedents may be used in order to avoid gendered pronouns.

Less inclusive More inclusive
“A substitute judge must certify that he has familiarized himself with the record of the proceedings.” “Substitute judges must certify that they have familiarized themselves with the record of the proceedings.”

3.6 Omit the gendered word

Less inclusive More inclusive
“Requests the Emergency Relief Coordinator to continue his/her efforts to strengthen the coordination of humanitarian assistance.” “Requests the Emergency Relief Coordinator to continue efforts to strengthen the coordination of humanitarian assistance.”
“A person must reside continuously in the Territory for 20 years before he may apply for permanent residence.” “A person must reside continuously in the Territory for 20 years before applying for permanent residence.”

3.7 Use the passive voice

The passive voice is not an appropriate option for all sentences in English, as employing the passive voice often changes the emphasis of the sentence. However, it does offer an option for avoiding gendered constructions.

Less inclusive More inclusive
“The author of a communication must have direct and reliable evidence of the situation he is describing.” “The author of a communication must have direct and reliable evidence of the situation being described.”