Gender Neutrality: What it Is and How to Be More Like It

Gender neutrality is one of those concepts that has sharply divided people both online and in real life. Unfortunately, many people are still kept in the dark, with pundits disagreeing with gender neutrality taking a stance against it that, honestly, tackles only a small part of the issue. This is because many people are still unsure about what exactly gender neutrality is, how it affects society, and how it can promote sensitivity and non-bias.

What is Gender Neutrality?

In essence, gender neutrality is the idea that gender should play absolutely no part in social roles and structures, gender identity, official policies, language, and other social constructions and/or institutions. Gender neutrality aims to abolish the idea that genders can play only certain roles, and propagates the idea that instances of discrimination can be minimized, if not neutralized completely, by forwarding the idea that gender has no place in the assignment of social roles.

How Is Society Reacting to It?

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Image by rihaij from Pixabay

According to researchers, Americans in general are divided when it comes to gender neutrality, specifically in the usage of gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns. The divide, however, is very sharp, with age and political affiliation playing a very huge part in how a person approaches the concept of gender neutrality, with younger, more liberal-leaning Americans more likely than older, more conservative-leaning Americans to be comfortable with the concept and usage of gender neutrality and gender neutral pronouns.

In general, however, a little over half of Americans, or 52%, claim to be comfortable with using gender neutral pronouns when referring to a person who requests its usage, while 47% of Americans say that this makes them uncomfortable. In fact, 6 out of 10, or roughly 61%, of Americans aged 18 to 29 report feeling very comfortable using gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns, a sharp contrast to 48% of Americans aged 50 and older who report the same.

From a political perspective, 66%, or two-thirds, of Democrats report comfortability with gender-neutral pronouns, while only 34% of Republicans can say the same.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, a majority of the population have almost no issue whatsoever with gender-neutral pronouns, but it wasn’t always like this: in 2012, author Jesper Lundquist wrote a children’s book, Kivi and the Monster Dog, using a gender-neutral neologised pronoun called “hen”, which is very similar to the Finnish non-gendered and non-binary pronoun hän. Initial reaction was of shock and confusion: many Swedes were against what they called an affront to societal norms, with some newspapers even banning the word ‘hen’, while an entertainment magazine, in defiance of these ‘societal norms’ mandated it as an official part of the publication’s lexicon.

The Swedish Language Council was initially against it; but after 2 years, the Council reversed its decision and made ‘hen’ part of the official Swedish language in 2014, a landmark victory for gender-neutrality and non-binary language.

Of course, there is still opposition: conservative Swedes still balk at the term, set in their decision that gender-neutral and non-binary people do not deserve a special pronoun, while language purists believe that a different word should be used. Thankfully, their numbers are dwindling.

Gender Neutral Pronouns and How You Can Encourage Gender Neutral Language

Many people use ‘confusion’ as an excuse to be against gender-neutrality, but really, it’s all just a question of using the right pronouns.

But what are gender neutral pronouns? Well, to answer that, let’s go back to basics: pronouns are words that are used to substitute a noun. In English, there are masculine and feminine pronouns for masculine and feminine nouns, for example:

Jerry is late again can be re-written as He is late again

Mary is going home can be re-written as She is going home

There are also neutral pronouns for non human nouns:

The table is wonky can be re-written as It is wonky

Unfortunately, English doesn’t have gender-neutral nouns that refer to people, with the masculine pronoun “he” (him, his) being used as the default (despite this being an outdated and confusing standard).

To avoid confusion, and to propagate gender-neutral language, here are some things you can do:

Use Multiple Pronouns

In some situations where the gender of a person is unknown, some writers will use “he/she” or “he or she”, “him/her”, or even “s/he”. While it’s ‘conventional’ to use the masculine form first, many writers are starting to put the feminine form first, not exactly as a rebellious thing, but rather as a point that the feminine form isn’t just tacked on out of habit, but rather as co-equal to the masculine pronoun. For example:

Successful applicants may send their CV to HR, and he or she will be contacted ASAP.

“That’s him or her!” the Inspector cried, as the murderous shadow loomed closer.

S/he also agrees to purchase one (1) round of alcoholic drinks for the group, should she/he lose the bet

Of course, this does have its downsides: first, from a stylistic point of view, this can be seen as both unwieldy and awkward, especially if its repeated multiple times throughout a text. Secondly, it might achieve the opposite effect of gender neutral language and actually call to attention the gender of a person, especially in contexts wherein their gender is either completely irrelevant or unimportant. As such, many writers prefer using alternative methods of gender neutral language in order to avoid this.

Plural Nouns and Pronouns

Using plural nouns can go around the awkward use of he/she effectively, for example:

The student was so haggard, he/she looked like they just went toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson

Can be rephrased into

The student was so haggard, they looked like they just went toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson


If the applicant wishes to use the bathroom before the end of the interview, he or she will forfeit their spot in Hogwarts

Can be rephrased into

If the applicant wishes to use the bathroom before the end of the interview, they will forfeit their spot in Hogwarts

Using plural forms might seem unwieldy, especially if you’re referring to a single person, but it isn’t unheard of: the plural ‘they’ has been used in the English language both as a plural and single pronoun for centuries, going all the way back to 1375, for example:

‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ Translated as “‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’

In fact, in 1660, grammarian and Quaker George Fox said that the use of the word “You” in its singular form was reserved only for fools, or, in this century, bigots.

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