Women’s Month: Gender-neutral writing
Written by Eamonn Ryan
IOPSA has undertaken an exercise together with Women in Plumbing to look at the IOPSA Constitution, all its documentation as well as the national curriculum and the National Building Regulations, to remove wherever possible gender-specific pronouns and thereby make these documents gender neutral.
IOPSA executive director Brendan Reynolds says: “Women in the industry have brought up this issue as being one which makes them feel excluded from the process. These are the official documents of the industry and need to be gender neutral if the industry is to transform. We’re now in the process of changing our constitution, and are making a submission for the changing of the National Building Regulations and some other documents.
“There are still some people who object to this saying the industry ‘is what it is’ as a male-dominated industry. Certainly, only 2% of the plumbing industry is female – but that needs correcting and is what we are trying to accomplish. We are going to address the matter as it affects only women in the industry, and is consequently not an issue that men have any say in,” he says.
Indeed, writing in a gender-neutral manner can make for clumsy writing. A typical writer prefers to write in “correct English”, not using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun because it’s not grammatically correct. Or using contrived phrases such as ‘s/he’ which is just awkward. Though sometimes awkward, gender-neutral writing uses language that aims not to stereotype either sex nor appear to be referring to only one sex when that is not the writer’s intention. This is of particular importance in technical writing.
Technical communication’s goal is to convey information to an audience, in a form that the audience can understand and use. We should avoid, if possible, anything that interferes with clear communication. If part of our audience is insulted (or offended, irritated, confused, or misled) or stumbles over the way we express ourselves, that reaction will interfere with the reception and understanding of our message.
Additionally, using gender-neutral technical writing can help prevent unnecessary arguments that others may raise. For example, some readers on a plumbing company team that is reviewing certain information may be offended by the gender-specific writing which makes them feel sidelined, an opinion that distracts them from doing their real job. The aim of gender-neutral writing is to save everyone a lot of hassle by avoiding potential problem areas – enabling teams to focus on the substance of the document rather than writing style.
Here are some of the rules of gender-neutral writing:
- Do not use ‘he’ as a generic pronoun; use it only to refer to men and boys.
- Do not use ‘she’ as a generic pronoun; use it only to refer to women and girls.
- Do not use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun unless you are confident that your audience won’t mind. This usage is gaining in popularity and acceptance, but a lot of people dislike it or stumble over it.
- Avoid phrases such as ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’ or made-up words like ‘s/he’.
- Do not use a feminised noun (e.g., manageress) when the normal noun (manager) covers both sexes.