In recent months, there has been much heated discussion about the way gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, theirs) are being introduced as alternatives to the more conventional “he” and “she” in offices, schools and public institutions.
Earlier this year, for instance, Qantas encouraged staff to adopt gender-inclusive language with customers, using the term “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife”.
The Victorian state government backed a similar initiative for public servants and launched a “They Day” campaign on the first Wednesday of each month to encourage awareness of gender-neutral pronouns.
And last year, the Australian Defence Force issued a guide with recommendations on how to appropriately address gender-diverse members of the force.
Some critics argue that these language changes are radical and politically motivated, and are being forced upon unwilling employees.
After the ADF launched its guide on gender-neutral language choices, The Telegraph claimed the organisation was banning the use of “him” and “her” – an assertion the ADF quickly dismissed.
Australian universities were also forced to defend the launch of similar guides for staff and students after another Telegraph story accused them of banning the words “mankind” and “manpower”.
There’s been vocal opposition to these moves from Liberal leaders, as well. The new deputy leader, Josh Frydenberg, dismissed “They Day” as “political correctness gone mad”, while Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton decried “invading the minds of young people with this sort of garbage message.”
Increasing acceptance in society
Guides for respectful and inclusive language protocols are not new, nor are they aimed at erasing existing gender-specific pronouns.
The debate over gender-neutral language actually dates back to the mid-1980s, when ungendered job titles became more popular (for example, “firefighters” instead of “firemen”) and the pronouns “he/she” or “they” began appearing in texts instead of default “he” when the gender of the person being referred to is not known.
In recent years, the use of the pronoun “they” to refer specifically to non-binary people has become increasingly accepted by media outlets. The Washington Post, for example, updatedits style guide in 2015 to include singular “they” for people who identify as neither male or female. The New York Times has introduced the new honorific Mx. And the Associated Press followed with its own change to the venerable AP Stylebook last year.
Not only does incorporating gender-neutral pronouns into the public sphere allow for more inclusivity, it can also bring standardisation to government functions, such as official documents and surveys (such as the census).
This enables more accurate self-identifications and brings greater visibility to previously unseen (and uncounted) groups of gender-diverse people.
The 2016 census was the first to allow an option for gender other than male or female on a special online form. The ABS provided the online form to a pilot group of 30,000 households to test their reactions. Gender-diverse people outside the pilot group were also able to access the form, but only if they sought it out on their own.
In total, 1,260 people in Australia were counted as gender diverse, but the ABS acknowledges this was probably lower than the actual figure due to fear of stigma and lack of widespread awareness over the new self-identifying option.
Still, the ABS found people in the pilot were over 50 times as likely as those outside the pilot to identify as gender diverse. Arguably, this suggests that simply offering the new option will provide an incentive for all gender-diverse people to choose how they are categorised and counted.