Gender sensitivity is the act of being aware of the ways people think about gender, so that individuals rely less on assumptions about traditional and outdated views on the roles of men and women. In language and the humanities, this is often expressed through people’s language choice. People can choose more inclusive language that doesn’t define gender, and many new words that are gender neutral have entered languages like English to substitute for more gender specific terms.
For centuries, many words referring to all people were specifically masculine. Terms like “man,” and “mankind,” which are used to describe all human beings, exclude females. While some people argue that such terms do include women, it’s been argued that these words have a belittling effect on women. True gender sensitivity, it is said, moves past these terms to include all and exclude none.
It is further contended by experts that the use of such terms is by no means innocent, and they have a negative cultural effect felt beyond the words. By making women either absent or non-apparent in terms like “mankind,” they become worth less and society will see them as possessing less value. This societal view in extreme forms is of detriment and corresponds to discrimination and even, arguably, things like greater violence against women.
In language and the humanities, this argument is accepted and a number of substitute words like “humankind,” express the gender sensitivity of the present. In the late 1980s, when Star Trek: The Next Generation began to air, a noted and more gender sensitive substitution differed from the original series. The opening narration changed so that “where no man has gone before,” become “where no one has gone before,” with a great deal of emphasis on the word “one.”
Some feminists suggest changing basic words with a masculine element to those with a specifically feminine element. Terms like “herstory” have been proposed for “history.” This substitution merely transfers the power from masculine to feminine, however, disregarding the male gender. A common compromise is to use gender-neutral terms so that males and females are both included.
Such terms can be obvious, like firefighter and police officer, in place of fireman or policeman. Pronouns are often considered carefully, too, and writers may take several tactics to remain gender neutral. They may oscillate back and forth between male and female pronouns, use plural pronouns that lack gender bias, or they use terms like “one.” Being gender sensitive with pronoun choice often takes work.
At the core of gender sensitivity in language is the goal of stripping away assumptions about limits of gender, and this benefits men and women. A stay at home parent isn’t automatically a mom, but can be a dad too. Such sensitivity from a language basis offers more choice and gives people the opportunity to view each other as individuals with different capacities, shedding assumptions about the traditional roles men and women may fill.