The use of inclusive language in documentation and other communications is one way that geeky communities can better include women. Reading a document where every pronoun is male can be like nails on a chalkboard to female readers.
Avoid Gendered Pronouns
A lot of discussion of gender-neutral and sometimes, nonsexist language centres around pronouns. The issue occurs when male pronouns ("he", "him", "his") are used in circumstances that describe people of any gender. For example:
- "Each developer needs to check out the source code onto his computer."
- "If you have a problem with the way the GM is running the game, talk to him."
Alternatives to male pronouns include:
- "His/her", "he/she", "s/he". However, these terms reinforce a binary view of gender, which erases and others many genderqueer, bigender, or agender people.
- Singular "they": for example, "Each developer needs to check out the source code onto their computer".
- Alternation: when giving examples, as in a technical book, alternate men and women as the case studies, but don't consistently use women as examples to highlight coding mistakes, or as just passive users of the software. (This approach also has the potential to erase non-binary genders.)
Man is Not Generic
Gendered terms like "man", "men", "dude" or "guys" are often used by people who say they mean to include women as well. However, the terms are not inclusive. Douglas Hofstadter's A Person Paper on Purity in Language clearly illustrates the issue.
- "Hi guys"
Alternatives to "guys" include: folks, everyone, people, y'all. Or you can just say morning/hi/hello/greetings, without adding "guys".
For "man-hours", try "hours of work", "hours of labor", "engineer hours".
Women as Afterthought
"Hello gentlemen ... and lady."
This tends to convey the message that gentlemen are the intended audience, and highlights the woman in the room in a way which at best feels awkward, but can become threatening if the audience targets the woman for unwelcome attention.
Responding to Change Requests
Take requests to change language away from uninclusive gendering seriously. If nobody had a problem with it, you would not have received a request about it.
Having used sexist language does not mean that the person who used it had sexist intent. However, continuing to include sexist language, and fighting against a change away from sexist language, has sexist effects regardless of intent.
But it's hard!
People sometimes complain about the perceived difficulty of writing in nonsexist language. Lots of communication habits are deeply ingrained: changing the way you write or speak does sometimes take extra effort. With practice, it does get easier.
Grammarians sometimes argue that pronouns like "they" and "their" are plural and thus are poor substitutes for singular third person pronouns. Good arguments to the contrary include:
- The linguistics blog Language Log has posted many times on singular "they", here's a summary statement and a grammarian's analysis.
- Singular "they" and the many reasons why it's correct
If you can't bring yourself to accept "they" and "their" as singular pronouns, think of it this way: if you're going to choose between exclusive language that normalizes the idea that women don't belong and misused plural pronouns, the latter is a lot more attractive.
- The standard text on the subject of non-sexist language is Miller and Swift's "Handbook of Nonsexist Writing". It's under several ISBNs, but the most common are: out of print but this is the one found in libraries currently in print
- A short guide based on Miller and Swift from University College Cork