What I will write here either will help or irritate you, enlighten or frustrate you. Where something is a matter of my personal preference, I will tell you; however, most of this represents the accepted standards for the fields, industries, governing bodies, or publications discussed herein. These standards normally apply universally to academic, medical, and business usage; where they do not, they will be specified accordingly.
I am asking you not to shoot the messenger. You always reserve the right not to follow any of this advice and take your chances on offending someone. That is your decision.
Addressing Non-Specific Gender
So many things have been written about this that I am reluctant to take up the topic again, but after editing several academic and business documents in the last few weeks, I know I must. Some brief notes:
Managers, doctors, professors, and engineers are not always men. Please refrain from referring to a nonspecific job title with the pronouns he, him, or his when your sentence does not refer to a specific person. You can avoid this by writing:
“The engineer must do his/her job well.”
“The engineer must do their job well.”
Please bear in mind that while Strunk & White as well as the American Psychological Association advise against using they, their, and theirs as a third-person singular form, almost all British English guides and the Chicago Manual of Style prefer it.
UPDATE: In October 2019, the APA opted to not only recognize, but advocate for, the use of the singular they. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/grammar/singular-they
Regardless, my opinion is that the best way to manage the situation of gender non-specificity is to work around it either by repeating the noun, adjusting the sentence order, or moving to the passive voice; for example, if we have the sentence:
“When the first engineer enters the clean room, he should turn on the exhaust fans.”
My opinion is that nothing is really served by using “they” as the subject of the verb in the second clause and the entire problem is easily avoided by writing:
“Upon entering the clean room, the first engineer should turn on the exhaust fan.”
“The exhaust fan should be turned on by the first engineer who enters the clean room.”
However, it is accepted non-formal use to avoid the appearance of gender bias by saying:
"When the first engineer enters the clean room, they should turn on the fan."
Advice in brief: When you feel like you have to use a gender specific pronoun and you aren’t talking about a specific person, work around it the best way possible or risk an accusation of sexism.
Addressing Non-Binary or Transgender People
Using a gender-neutral approach will also help you avoid any uncomfortable situations with transgender and non-binary individuals. However, when it is not possible to use gender-neutral language, for example, when you are addressing a particular person, please be sure to consult with that person about what their preferred pronouns are before you write anything about them . I know this feels very counter-intuitive, and that you are accustomed to being able to “judge a book by its cover” or guess the person’s gender preference by their name, just remember that for many people pronouns are a matter of choice . . . and that Leslie Nielsen and Lindsay Graham are men.
A special note to German speakers of English: With the addition of “divers” as a gender choice on German birth certificates, standard recommendations on this topic in the German language will adjust accordingly and swiftly. Please consult your style guides regularly for updates on this change in the German language. We do not edit German-language documents, but felt this note is necessary. It is very likely that either Duden will hold a specific conference of educators and politicians to make the decisions necessary to manage this. With no special insight into the glacial pace of change within the German language by comparison to the English language, we cannot speculate about when or how this will happen.
Addressing Disability and Neurodiversity
Among people who are either disabled or neurodiverse (see: https://neurodiversitysymposium.wordpress.com/what-is-neurodiversity/), there is no agreement. However, you can turn to the American Medical Association’s publication for guidance in academic and medical fields (for my readers who work in the medical device industry, this means you, too).
The AMA prefers and prescribes People-First Language (PFL) for all types of disability or non-neurotypical development. PFL was developed and adopted in the late 1980s as a way not to reduce the human being to their ailment. A person who may have formerly been referred to as “a disabled person” was, with PFL, referred to as “a person with a disability.” Similarly, “a diabetic” should be referred to as “a person with diabetes” and “an asthmatic” as “a person with asthma” and so on.
On these things, most of the medical community and affected communities agree. That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? As I was preparing this blog post, however, I decided to check in with some people with autism and other neurologic variations to find out how they felt about this. The first thing I said as I entered this discussion with them is, “I have always preferred PFL.” The quick and slightly stinging response was, “What you prefer does not matter.” That was tough to absorb, but not wrong. I am not affected by any of this. It is all external to me, so how can I justify telling any other people how I should refer to them? The simple answer is that I can’t justify that at all. So, I spent some time with those people discussing the issue and then went to the web to get some further education for myself.
Here’s what I learned that was entirely new to me:
Deaf Culture: While there are people with hearing impairments who feel that this is a disability to be corrected or managed, there is also a large group of Deaf people (in Deaf culture, the “d’ is always capitalized) who view deafness or any level of hearing impairment as simply another mode of existence that, while nonstandard in the overarching society, is not a disability. I have few words of editorial advice on this topic. The best I can say is be sure you know your audience. The medical community will not hold the same perspective as the Deaf community. Govern yourselves accordingly.
Neurodiverse People: My conversation some days ago with a group of autistic people on a web forum was possibly one of the best learning experiences I’ve had in a while. Just being given the impetus to investigate and learn more about neurodiversity has expanded my curiosity as an editor.
In a nutshell, many autistic people do not view autism as a disability, but rather as another way of being neurologically wired. They present their situation as being part of human evolution that has adaptive benefits for the species in the future, as well as having wonderful benefits to the members of the neurodiverse community today that enable them to benefit our society greatly. Therefore, when the medical community writes anything that is aimed at reaching them, they prefer not to be referred to using PFL, e.g., people with autism, because this stigmatizes the autism as a disability to be corrected or a chronic condition to be managed.
One of the first things that came to my mind was how to use neurodiversity as a topic when working with my clients who are medical device manufacturers. Medical device manufacturers are making advancements right now in ways to make medical environments less frightening for children and older patients. How beneficial are those same advancements to the growing populations of proudly neurodiverse individuals? Is there a missed opportunity to reach out to the neurodiverse community with this new information? Consider the irritation and neuro-typical person feels with needle sticks, for example. Now consider how this might be more difficult for a neurodiverse person. Are we all missing an opportunity?
I am fascinated by this topic and will continue to investigate it and learn.
Once again, I would like to be certain that I say that no one can dictate to you how you and your team, university, industry, or communications department handle these issues. These are issues that affect your organization internally with respect to human resources and externally with respect to public relations that must be discussed and considered as a matter of your normal working environment; it cannot and should not be decided on the spur of the moment. My focus in writing this blog post is only to provide a jumping off point for this conversation and to invite all concerned to invest of their time and resources to make informed decisions.
Updated June 2020.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash