Why gender-neutral language matters in your content marketing
In societies around the world, people discuss gender-neutral language. It’s a topic and language issue that seems to divide people. Some say it’s necessary and here to stay; others just roll their eyes, struggling to understand what the fuss is about, and ask ‘Why can’t we just speak as we’ve always done?’
But how do you feel about it as a global business?
Are you sitting on the fence?
Are you uncomfortable with the topic?
This article will help you to approach the issue clearly when you’re producing copy and translating it into different languages. I’m writing it from the perspective of a German native speaker, but the issue of gender-neutral language is also relevant to Romance languages — such as Spanish, Italian and French — and to Slavic languages, including Polish and Russian.
What is gender-neutral language?
‘… a generic term covering the use of non-sexist language, inclusive language or gender-fair language. The purpose of gender-neutral language is to avoid word choices which may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm. Using gender-fair and inclusive language also helps reduce gender stereotyping, promotes social change and contributes to achieving gender equality.’
In English, it’s common to refer to men and women equally by using the pronoun ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. Another approach is to replace gender-specific terms with gender-neutral ones, such as ‘policemen’ with ‘police officer’. Both are examples of gender-neutral language.
Why does it matter in business?
If you’re reading this on my blog, the chances are you’re a business trying to sell a product or service. You might also have done some research into who your ideal clients are and developed an ideal client avatar (ICA). Wonderful! If your ideal clients are men and women, you might want to consider their opinion on gender-neutral language and word your copy accordingly — this applies to your translations as well as to your source copy.
Gender-neutral language can have a positive impact on your sales, whereas excluding women through the language you use when writing your copy may put them off what you have to offer or cause them to lose in interest. Analyse your target audience thoroughly, and decide whether you can leverage gender-neutral language to attract the attention of your ICAs.
By the way, it’s impossible not to have an opinion on this, and burying your head in the sand won’t help. If you use non-gender-neutral language in your communication because ‘that’s the way it’s always been’, you create the impression that you:
- Don’t care about the issue.
- Don’t know how to address the issue.
- Are okay with “male as the norm”.
- Aren’t progressive.
So when should you use gender-neutral language in your content marketing?
You should use it when your target audience expects it and is sensitive to the topic. And if you’re selling products or services to other countries and you localise your content, you should make sure that your translators know about this as well. Let them know that gender-neutral language is important to you because it’s important to your audience.
In German and several other languages, achieving gender neutrality in texts is more complicated than in English because of the grammatical rules of the language. For instance, we have a male and female version of every job title — even for the term ‘police officer’ — and for every individual.
Each language works different and has its own tools which speakers can use to make the language gender neutral. Ensure that your translator knows how to use them.
How do you use it?
If you’ve not worked with gender-neutral language in German before, the approach you’re likely to know (and possibly your translator, too) is that of referring to men and women separately e. g. Kundinnen und Kunden for ‘customers’). This is ok when used sparingly, but it can make your texts clumsy, long-winded and repetitive. However, in German, there are several different strategies you can adopt (note: German language skills are required for this, but I hope you get the idea):
Use neutral words that can apply to men and women
- You can turn adjectives or present participles into nouns and pluralise them e.g. Abgeordnete, Studierende, Jugendliche, Reisende, Kranke.
- You can use more generic words and avoid referring to specific persons e.g. Leitung, Presse, Kollegium Leiter, Journalist, Kollegen.
- You can use words that do refer to people but are neutral e.g. Fans, Gäste, Menschen, Personen.
Use a verb to shift the emphasis away from the person to the activity they’re performing
Often, the action is more important than the person, and this simple trick involves using a verb to focus on the activity rather than the person. Here are a couple of examples:
- Vorsicht, wachsamer Nachbar Vorsicht, wir sehen, was hier geschieht.
- Jedes Mitglied ist Besitzer eines Vereinsausweises Jedes Mitglied besitzt einen Vereinsausweis.
Shake up the stereotypes
Don’t place men and women in old-fashioned gender roles à la ‘Mum was cooking dinner when Dad arrived home’ when writing your copy.’ Instead, mix men, women and roles in your texts:
- Make women the leaders.
- Give men a recipe blog.
- Let both parents look after the kids and the household.
Note that this is a short version of how to use gender-neutral language in your texts. There are further strategies you can implement, and specialist literature on this topic (see the resources below) will allow you to build a much more thorough knowledge and understanding of the topic.
A note to translators and copywriters
I’ve read a lot of opinions on this topic from fellow German translators, male and female, who say that gender-neutral language is ridiculous, ruining our language, completely unnecessary or the wrong way to go because it doesn’t contribute anything further towards women being treated equally.
Here’s how I see it:
- When you produce a text for your clients, you should stay objective and let your expertise in language, culture and translation take centre stage. It’s your job to analyse the target audience and write for them. If that target audience is pro gender-neutral language, then that’s what you should provide in your text or translation. Ask yourself: would they buy a certain product if the text only addressed males? Or would they buy from a competitor who has studied their target audience more closely? Don’t think about whether YOU would buy it; think about whether the AUDIENCE would buy it.
- Be honest with yourself and make sure you’re not disregarding gender-neutral language because you think it makes your job harder. Or because you don’t know how to do it. If you want to be a better translator, do some reading and build your skills and knowledge of gender-neutral language. You can then serve your customers even better than before. Don’t let your own opinion get in the way of providing your client and their brand with the quality they deserve.
Resources on how to use gender-neutral language
Here are some resources you can check out for German:
Duden (the German equivalent of Merriam-Webster or the Oxford Dictionary) has five publications covering gender-neutral language. Their prices range between €7 and €22:
- Handbuch geschlechtergerechte Sprache (https://shop.duden.de/Shop/Handbuch-geschlechtergerechte-Sprache)
- Richtig gendern (https://shop.duden.de/Shop/Richtig-gendern), I’ve used this book for most of the examples in this article
- Gendern – ganz einfach (https://shop.duden.de/Shop/Gendern-Ganz-einfach)
- Gendern?! (https://shop.duden.de/Shop/Gendern)
- Eine Frage der Moral (https://shop.duden.de/Shop/Eine-Frage-der-Moral)
You can also find out more about the topic by visiting these free resources online:
- Genderwörterbuch: https://geschicktgendern.de/
- Leitfaden gendergerechte Sprache (University of Munich): https://www.frauenbeauftragte.uni-muenchen.de/genderkompetenz/sprache/index.html
- Blog by German copywriter Lucia Clara Rocktäschel: https://www.lucia-clara-rocktaeschel.de/category/gendern/
After reading all this, you should be able to develop a clear approach to gender-neutral language in your content marketing: Find out what your audience would appreciate in your copy. Don’t ignore the issue. Use it to your advantage. If you need any help with your copy in German, contact me — I work regularly with gender-neutral language.