A close friend recently told me a story about a person with whom he shared a cup of coffee. “Ok,” he asked, “How do you want me to refer to her? Do I say ‘young woman’ or ‘young lady?’” The answer is neither.
At this point in our language’s evolution, it is generally beyond dispute that gender-neutral language should be used when addressing or referencing groups of both sexes or when referencing an individual whose sex is unknown. But references to gender, though ubiquitous, are almost entirely unnecessary - even when the sex of the subject is known. Gender-neutral language should be the default in all communication, and our language should adapt to allow for gender-neutral language in all circumstances except when the sex of the subject is both known and relevant to the purpose of the communication.
What is the harm? Gender-specific language (for example “fireman,” or “Congressman") is comprised of holdover words from a time when all (or virtually all) such people were men. It is a reminder in colloquialism that women are the exception, that women are new, that women require accommodation.
Consider a fascinating study by Webb Phillips and Lera Boroditsky available here. The study observed native speakers of Spanish and German - two languages that have grammatical gender (I.e., masculine and feminine nouns), a feature English does not have. The study focused on words that had different genders in Spanish than in German. The results showed a difference in the way speakers of the two languages perceived those objects - stemming from the different genders of the nouns in their languages. Language affects thought. By describing a person only by his or her gender, speakers open the door for listeners to ascribe sex-based stereotypes to the person. Instead, each person should be recognized as an individual member of humanity, not as a member of the subset “women” or “men.”
Imagine language referencing other traits - such as a “Congressbrunette” or “policeyouth.” Such words would be perceived as silly and unnecessary when our language provides for identifying a “brown-haired Congressperson” and a “young police officer.” Or, to choose a more charged example, imagine language referencing race - such as “Congressasian” or “policecaucasian.” Even if the race of the person were known, such words would be highly offensive, and consequently unacceptable. Gender-based words, even where the sex of the subject is known, should similarly be removed.
And leaving our subjects as people, rather than men or women, does not detract from the richness of our communications. Richness comes from communicating relevant characteristics. For example, when a student says, “my teacher gave me too much homework,” a listener is not constrained to ask whether the teacher was male or female. That detail would distract from, rather than enrich the communication. The sex of the teacher adds no more to the communication than the teacher’s height or favorite color. We can permanently retire gender-specific words like “policeman” or “fireman” and replace them with gender neutral terms. If sex becomes relevant, we can clarify by saying “the female police officer” or “the male firefighter” exactly the way we would with teachers, judges, doctors, and lawyers.
In closing, I return to my friend’s story. I suggested he refer to her as “a person,” “a coffee drinker,” or “a friend.” Depending on where the story was leading, I suggested he could call her “a student,” “a brunette” or “an introvert.” If his story really were to get good, he could have called her “a suspect,” “a prodigy,” “a disciple,” or “an agent.” She was none of those, unfortunately. He ended up settling for “a person,” which told me exactly what I needed to know to appreciate the story.