gender neutrality is not the same thing as requiring everyone to be non-binary. gender neutrality is an inclusive frame for all genders (men + women, too).

Alok Vaid-Menon, gender non-conforming writer and performance artist

This article is intended to inform, about the latter, anyone currently engaged in the process of designing digital interfaces. Indeed, CEL has identified a few very simple best practices for favouring gender neutrality in most communication materials, so essential in today’s world. By applying these conventions, designers also have a chance to raise awareness around gender issues in a respectful way.

Sizing the problem

The risk for graphic developers and those who use their services is to resort to gender stereotyping. However obviously visual this type of stereotyping may be, it risks becoming invisible to the conscious attention of the majority of readers and users. Yet everyday representations of people enacting activities that conform with the society’s expectations of them (e.g. men wearing a suit and tie for business meetings or women doing house chores) perpetuate such stereotypes. As their presence becomes reinforced, gender stereotypes render those to whom they refer less able to live a free life.

For this reason, The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has classified gender stereotyping as a violation of human rights. The OHCHR defines a “gender stereotype” in the following way:

“[A] generalised view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by or performed by women and men. A gender stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives.” 

Goals and keys definitions

To overcome gender stereotyping, designers can aim for gender neutrality and gender sensitivity. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gender neutrality as “not referring to either sex but only to people in general.” “Gender sensitivity” is defined as a result of gender awareness, that is the ability to view society from the perspective of how preconfigured roles for women and men have affected their respective needs. Thereby, “sensitivity” is the translation of this awareness into action, for example in the design of policies, programs, and budgets. And, of course, of texts for all audiences.

TIP1: Rethink the gender of your subjects

Figure 1 – Sigourney Weaver portrays Ripley in the sci-fi film “Alien” (1979)

“I just had a thought. What would you think if Ripley was a woman?” British director Ridley Scott became known on the Hollywood and worldwide scene with his 1979 science-fiction film “Alien.” Aesthetic judgments aside, the film became a classic also thanks to its main character, Ripley, portrayed by actor Sigourney Weaver (she/her). Originally written for a more traditional, tough, macho-male actor, the filmmakers changed the character’s gender when they met Weaver. This classic example helps us drive home our key point: based on historical evidence and societal progress toward equity, there is no valid reason for assigning roles to an individual based on their gender. Within the context of health care communication, an example might serve to clarify.

For example, in a medical context, images of physicians represented on printed or digital brochures and fliers should not unequivocally or most often be those of men, especially since 53% of physicians in Europe are female (Boniol, 2019).

TIP2: Reconsider gender roles, clothing, and activities in your imagery

Figure 2 – Gender-binary activist and fashion icon Alok Vaid-Menon in an ad for Harry’s Razors

A “gender role” is defined by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) as any “social and behavioural norms which, within a specific culture, are widely considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex.” Often, individuals choose to not abide to the gender roles traditionally reserved for them. In other words, they choose to express their gender differently.

EIGE defines “gender expression” in the following way: “People’s manifestation of their gender identity, and the one that is perceived by others. Typically, people seek to make their gender expression or presentation match their gender identity/identities, irrespective of the sex that they were assigned at birth.” Transgender people may choose to present themselves in ways that challenge the social norm, i.e. in fashion and hair styles that don’t match their socially assigned identity and/or by legally changing their name on all pertinent personal identification documents.

Recent literature has gone beyond the dual dimensionality of gender. Reducing gender to a binary choice, male or female, discounts the full spectrum of gender identities that people feel and express (Bosson et al, 2018: 54). At CEL, we propose and strongly encourage a less traditional approach to the depiction of human beings, one that is more inclusive of occurrences that are perhaps less common but for no reason less real.

Figure 3 – Advertisement for the City of Madrid’s toy museum shows two children presenting male and female expressing gender differently from the norm

 

For example, if your brochure shows a gaming hall, there is no reason to restrict the people present there to adults or children expressing their gender traditionally. Indeed, it would be appropriate and timely to include transgender persons in the depiction in a way that is not token or stereotypical (e.g. avoiding show transwomen as sex workers).

 

Figure 4 – Reconsider gender roles in healthcare (from EIGE)

 

On the left, you can find a reference image from EIGE’s Toolkit on Gender-sensitive Communication that illustrates appropriate and inappropriate depictions of individuals in the health care field.

TIP3: Strip away gender when it isn’t necessary

Figure 5 – An example of a binary icon for male and female gender (left) versus one of a non-binary i con (right)

While being more inclusive is key, it is also important to strip away gendered representations from communication material. Regarding emojis and emoticons, EIGE reminds us that: “Many […] emoji sets repeat stereotypes by putting men in active roles (sports, people, or professionals) and only including women in stereotypical pursuits (cutting hair or dancing) […] When you use emojis remember these are also a way to make your communication supportive of gender equality.” The same applies for visual iconography in general. For example, men and women are often represented by convention through icons such as the ones shown in the left of the figure below. Alternatives exist, and they are recommended.

TIP4: Champion related values in your choice of channel

Where the target audience is heterogeneous, it may be beneficial to use a mix of channels. The main criteria governing the choice should include the following:

  • appropriateness of the message and content;
  • accessibility for all, women and men;
  • compatibility with the customs and socio-economic capacities of the target group;
  • suitability in terms of the physical and geographical nature of the area.

Involving target audiences in the definition of the communication process is a best practice championed, for instance, by the Food and Agriculture Organization. The table below is adapted from UNICEF, and centres on the different advantages and disadvantages offered by interpersonal and digital communication tools, with considerations on gender on a binary basis.

Communication Channels Advantages Disadvantages Gender Considerations
Interpersonal or Group Communication Dialogic

Creates a buzz

Resource-heavy

Time consuming

Difficult to control

Interest and availability given women’s multiple responsibilities

Women’s mobility and safety

Some topics may be sensitive to discuss

Digital Media and Interactive Technologies Increasing in reach

Rapid dissemination and feedback

Some segments of the population may be left out Access and ownership

Literacy

Table 1 – Selecting Communication Channels

TIP5: Pay attention to your use of gendered language

Many languages in Europe, such as Romance languages, have gendered terms. For example, in Italian “table” is masculine while “car” is feminine. Often, semantic choices imply different shades of meaning. In other words, for ingrained reasons, it is often difficult to decouple gender from the concept of something, and for this reason we often value male terms as being of a higher order than female ones. Nevertheless, it is an exercise that is important to undertake in order to raise gender awareness and increase gender sensitivity, since we frequently stereotype, omit, or trivialise one gender (most often women) in discourse.

Therefore, whether in speech or in writing, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls of gendered language so we may learn to avoid them. In providing suggested guidelines for PERSIST, we have condensed those we consider most relevant and of immediate use and implementation from the EIGE’s “Toolkit on Gender-sensitive Communication” [1] into the following list, with tables that highlight incorrect (bold red, left, marked with a cross) and virtuous (bold green, right, marked with a check mark) examples:

  • Avoid typical gender stereotypes when speaking about professions and occupations. In fact, there is no need to include an unknown person’s gender when speaking about their profession;
“I need to speak to your assistant, is she in the office?” “I need to speak to the  assistant, are they in the office?”

 

  • Don’t limit language to the masculine, for example when referring in the abstract to either an individual or humanity in its entirety. Instead, use gender-neutral pronouns, nouns, and expressions;
Linguistic category
Personal and possessive pronouns Customers should always report faulty products as soon as she begins to notice the defeces. Customers should always report faulty products as soon as he or she / theybegin(s) to notice the defeces.
A good consultant always spends the appropriate amount of time with hisclient. A good consultant always spends the appropriate amount of time with his or her / their client.
Nouns and expressions Man in the street Average person
Every man for himself Everyone for themselves
Mankind Humankind

 

  • Stop using gender stereotypes as descriptive terms;
The patient’s ladylike handshake did not impress the health care worker. The patient’s weak handshake did not impress  the health care worker.

 

  • Forget about hierarchies in sentences. Although possibly awkward at first, consider switching the order of gendered terms repeated throughout the text each time they are used.
The husband and wife made a donation to the hospital. The man and woman, who had both been affected by the disease, wanted to do something to help others. The wife and husband  made a donation to the hospital. The man and woman,  who had both been affected by the disease, wanted to do something to help others.

It is important to note that inverting hierarchies has nothing to do with chauvinistic ‘women first’ etiquette; it instead is predicated on the notion that there is no pre-ordained order among humans, a fact that can be highlighted by the intentional swapping of positions in lists.

TIP6: Add Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired

This final tip does not regard gender, but rather intends to provide suggestions for greater, overarching accessibility of texts. Including alternative text while writing on Microsoft Word allows screen readers to capture the description of

Figure 6 – Adding Alt Text

an object and read it aloud for those with visual impairments. In order to add image descriptions, right-click on an image and select Edit Alt Text. A side bar will appear. Insert the text, then close the side bar. The figure below shows the two simple, main steps. If, instead, you are publishing images containing text on your website, make sure that you include a text caption with the same words next to the image so that auto-readers can read it to the visually impaired.

Conclusion

As women continue to gain greater power in their roles and responsibilities in the workplace, it becomes imperative to update tropes used in design and writing. Yet societal factors are not the only ones at play. Businesses that make open commitments to gender sensitivity can stand out among the competition. The more competitive the market, as is the case for technology providers whose products or services require the widest possible adoption, the more urgent and important the need for a strategy that uses all available tricks. In other words, gender neutrality, sensitivity, and awareness can be viewed as potentially profitable. Organizations of all kinds, by displaying gender sensitivity, can show both internal and external stakeholders their authentically non-discriminatory and inclusive nature, making all categories feel respected.

References

Vaid-Menon, A., Degendering Fashion Is an Anti-violence Imperative, Nov. 25, 2019
https://www.alokvmenon.com/blog/2019/11/25/degendering-fashion-is-an-anti-violence-imperative
OHCHR Commissioned Report, Gender Stereotyping as a Human Rights Violation, October 2013
https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/wrgs/pages/genderstereotypes.aspx
United Nations Fund for Women, Definitions, American University of Cairo, 2005 http://www1.aucegypt.edu/src/engendering/definitions.html
Boniol, M. et al, Gender equity in the health workforce: Analysis of 104 countries in Health Workforce Working papers, World Health Organization, 2019, Geneva
https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311314/WHO-HIS-HWF-Gender-WP1-2019.1-eng.pdf
European Institute for Gender Equality, Thesaurus eige.europa.eu/thesaurus
Bosson, J.K., Vandello, J.A. Buckner, C.E. The Psychology of Sex and Gender, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, 2018, p. 54
Food and Agriculture Organization, Communicating Gender for Rural Development, 2011, p. 45
http://www.fao.org/3/am319e/am319e00.pdf
Unicef, Gender Responsive Communication for Development:Guidance, Tools and Resources, 2018, p. 17
https://www.unicef.org/rosa/media/1786/file
Kutateladze, Maia, Importance of Gender-Sensitive Language and Some Guidelines for Business Writing Journal in Humanities, International Black Sea University 2015/06/01
https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/wrgs/pages/genderstereotypes.aspx
United Nations Fund for Women, Definitions, American University of Cairo, 2005 http://www1.aucegypt.edu/src/engendering/definitions.html
Boniol, M. et al, Gender equity in the health workforce: Analysis of 104 countries in Health Workforce Working papers, World Health Organization, 2019, Geneva
https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311314/WHO-HIS-HWF-Gender-WP1-2019.1-eng.pdf