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10.6. Gender-neutral language

Much existing EU legislation is not gender neutral and the masculine pronouns ‘he’ etc. are used generically to include women. However, gender-neutral language is nowadays preferred wherever possible.

In practice, gender-neutral drafting means two things:

avoiding nouns that appear to assume that a man rather than a woman will perform a particular role: ‘chairman’ is the most obvious example;
avoiding gender-specific pronouns for people who may be either male or female.

Noun forms. Gender-neutral noun forms (‘chair’, ‘spokesperson’, etc.) are preferred.

For certain occupations, a substitute for a gender-specific term is now commonly used to refer to persons working in those occupations, e.g. we now write ‘firefighters’ instead of ‘firemen’ and ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’. Note that the terms ‘tradesperson’ and ‘craftsperson’ are commonly used instead of ‘tradesman’ and ‘craftsman’ by local government authorities advertising jobs to both men and women.

Pronouns. If the text clearly refers to a specific individual on a particular occasion, and you know the gender of the person concerned, use a gender-specific pronoun:

The High Representative (Baroness Ashton) voiced her objections.
The President of the Commission (Mr Delors) said that he welcomed the common position reached at the Council.

Otherwise, depending on the circumstances, consider the following alternatives.

Where possible draft in the plural; this is very common in English to render general concepts:
Researchers must be objective about their findings.
This does not apply when passengers miss connecting flights for which they have reservations.
Omit the pronoun altogether:
The chair expressed his/her/its dissent.
The spokesperson voiced his/her opposition to the amendment.
Substitute ‘the’ or ‘that’ for the possessive pronoun:
A member of the Court of Auditors may be deprived of the right to a pension. (instead of ‘his’ right)
Use ‘he or she’:
This does not apply when a passenger misses a connecting flight for which he or she has a reservation.

This becomes clumsy if repeated too frequently and should be used with caution. If its use is really necessary, prefer ‘he or she’ to ‘he/she’, ‘(s)he’ or ‘s/he’, which should be avoided.

Repeat the noun:
This does not apply when a passenger misses a connecting flight for which that passenger has a reservation.

This can be cumbersome and look excessively formal, but may be a useful technique in a longer sentence.

In instructions, use the second person or the imperative:
You should first turn on your computer.

or

First turn on your computer.

instead of

The user should first turn on his/her computer.

In current usage, third person plural pronouns (they/them/their/theirs) are often used to refer back to singular nouns:

This does not apply when a passenger misses a connecting flight for which they have a reservation.
Identify the person responsible and take their advice.

However, in order to avoid confusion and possible translation problems, this device should be used only when the reference is absolutely clear. It should also be borne in mind that it is still perceived as grammatically incorrect by many speakers, making the other constructions mentioned above preferable wherever possible.

Last updated: 22.4.2015
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