The challenge of gender-neutral language – clarity, inclusion and equality

One major topic that we are consistently faced with in the 2020s is gender neutral language. And what a challenge it is!


How often have we been faced with annual reports talking about their chairman and how often have we been tempted to translate chairperson or nowadays simply chair. In fact to be honest, we do this, because hey, if translators don't try to change the language who will? Gender-neutral language reduces bias and stereotyping and promotes social change.

In fact there is an official document by the European Union with guidelines for gender-neutral writing: here is the English version:

When we first started out translating many moons ago, we often wrote “he/she” and “his/her”in legal texts. Until one day, we looked at each other, burst out laughing and said no one will ever understand this sentence so let's try to use the neutral"they" as a single pronoun.
In legal writing, masculine language was used as all encompassing term for a long time, referring to people regardless of gender. However gender-neutral writing is all about clarity, inclusion and equality.
It feels a little strange when you first read “they” as a singular pronoun, but you get used to it and it becomes second nature.
Basically there are several ways to avoid gender-specific pronouns in legal writing:
a) you can use the plural form: “the employee shall carry out his duties...”-> “employees shall carry out their duties...”
b) you can either repeat the noun, change the pronoun from “his/her” to “their”– e.g., “if a person causes harm to themselves...”
c) or you can rewrite the sentence to avoid the pronoun “an employee's salary depends on length of service”.

Here is a fun little story provided by the former chancellor Angela Merkel as the German language is very much a gender-based language, where words change if they refer to a male or a female.

I will never forget Angela Merkel speaking at a conference of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Germany (VdU) telling us that a young boy in a primary school had once asked her "Können Jungs auch Bundeskanzlerin werden?"...

At discover legal we truly believe that inclusivity in language will continue to be a "hot topic" for years to come and languages will adapt. It will be an ongoing task for writers and translators to ensure that languages are both politically and socially correct.