by Marina Lourenço-Yılmaz*

I am a native Portuguese speaker, but my first encounter with the problem of gender-biased language was in English. In my first week as a student at the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria, we received guidance on academic writing, and I remember being taught to use spokesperson instead of spokesman, or chairperson or chair instead of chairman (when appropriate). Now it seems rather obvious, and I must admit it feels even weird to think otherwise, but ever since I've opened my eyes to gender-biased language, I became very strict about it. I almost cringe every time I hear or read gender-biased terms, and I can't write even the shortest or most informal note without paying attention to gender neutrality.

© 2016 HR&D blog

Some languages are probably worse and others in what regards gender sensitivity, and that is due to different grammar rules and structures. My own language, for instance, Portuguese, lacks a gender-neutral pronoun such as English they. We have am equivalent to they to express female plural (elas), and another for male plural (eles). Gender bias kicks in when you need to talk about a collective whose genders are unknown or mixed, both male and female: we are supposed to use eles, which implies masculine plural. The same problem goes with most plurals in Portuguese. Some of us have been using elxs, substituting the letter that denotes gender by an x to express neutrality. It's also common to see @ instead of x

As far as English is concerned, in my own writing, I have used she or one to express singular pronoun, but I am not always satisfied with the use of she. I feel like it is more of a statement to counter the use of he, but that still leaves me feeling I need to take a side in this male/female dichotomy. I have recently come across this suggestion and found interesting, but haven't adopted into my writing yet: 

Gender-neutral pronouns by Sexuality and Gender Activism

We can not always blame the grammar, though. I have recently come across something in my Facebook timeline, share by a Hungarian friend: 

Print screen from Google Translate.

She was trying to take our attention about cultural gender bias. Hungarian does not have gender-specific pronouns and lacks grammatical gender, so why the translation into English came out that way? That happens in other languages, too, and it might actually raise issues of corporate social responsibility insofar as Google translations are reinforcing gender discrimination. For more on Google Translate's gender problem see this.

Marina Lourenço-Yılmaz is the founder and editor-in-chief of Human Rights & Democracy blog.


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