Speaking gender: 10 communications principles to show you care about gender equality

by Florin Marin

Illustrations: Sera Sezer

Recent experiments have shown that speaking a foreign language can make people think and behave differently. But we don’t have to learn new languages to understand the power they exert over our perceptions of identity and reality. Ultimately, we are what we speak.

Since I started working on communications for UNDP’s gender equality portfolio, I have been thinking about the role that language plays in creating social change. The more I edit reports, stories and videos, the more I understand the importance of using language that doesn’t enforce inequalities and stereotypes but rather helps to subvert them.

Drawing from my experience, I developed 10 principles that could serve as the foundation for a culture of gender-responsive communications at UNDP and other development agencies and actors.

Here is a quick look at my list:

1. Don’t frame gender equality as only a women’s issue.

It’s everyone’s issue. You can’t fix gender inequalities without getting everyone to understand that gender roles shape the ways in which both women and men think, live their lives, and act towards each other.

Photo: Mihail Turculet/Swedish Embassy in Chisinau

Empowering some women cannot by itself lead to transformational change in society. If gender roles remain unchallenged on a larger scale, women’s options will still be limited to either working twice as much as men or employing other women’s labour to perform the work considered as feminine in the household.

To achieve long-lasting gender equality, we need to challenge gender roles and stereotypes associated with both women and men. And we need both women and men to fight for equality.

2. Fair visibility > equal visibility.

Photo: UNDP Albania

Don’t focus on equal representation, aim for fair representation. If an image has an equal number of men and women, but all men are firefighters and all women are nurses, then this image is still helping perpetuate socially-constructed gender roles. By making a conscious effort to represent women in roles traditionally occupied by men and men in roles traditionally occupied by women, we can work toward breaking entrenched stereotypes.

3. Don’t diminish women’s contributions.

Throughout time and in most societies, activities associated with men have been valued and rewarded more than those associated with women. That’s why being able to break the gendered lens through which we look at human activity is difficult.

We have to learn to rethink the value of roles and contributions we see as feminine and masculine. Activities like childcare and primary education should be considered as equally valuable to firefighting and construction.

4. Don’t reinforce gender stereotypes.

There are no traits, behaviours or preferences that are common to all women, nor are there any that all men share. These are myths perpetuated through gender stereotypes, some of which we don’t even recognise as problematic. For example, while it may seem like a compliment to say women are more cooperative and men are more competitive, these are still stereotypes.

Similarly, the colours and symbols typically used to represent women and men are imbued with particular qualities that reflect gender roles. Red is seen as emotional and impulsive, while blue is rational and stable. They reinforce stereotypes about the body as feminine and the mind as masculine. Avoid using these two colours to represent women and men.

5. Portray diversity.

Not all women suffer from the same forms of discrimination and not all men enjoy the same privileges. An elderly Roma woman living with disabilities will face issues different from those faced by a high-income young lesbian woman. Pay attention to how our gender identities intersect with our other identities like race, ethnicity, age, class, income, disability, and sexual orientation to create unique patterns of discrimination and exclusion. Aim to listen and give voice to as many of these experiences as you can.

6. Use gender-responsive language.

Our language should be adapted to reflect inclusion. We should give up the terms male and female as they reduce people to their reproductive roles. Instead, we have to acknowledge that gender is socially-constructed. Choose to use man and woman, as well as non-binary terms, when needed.

Replace gendered generic nouns such as mankind, forefathers, and motherly with gender-neutral terms like humankind, ancestors, and nurturing.

And there is no need to differentiate job titles based on gender, as gender does not dictate how people fulfil their roles. Use police officer instead of policeman or policewoman, chair or chairperson instead of chairman or chairwoman, and actor for both women and men.

7. Don’t victimise.

Women tend to be portrayed as powerless in the face of adversity or in situations where they lack the support of a man. Even if they are struggling, we have to give them credit for the ways in which they have dealt with the issues they face. It’s best to use survivors of gender-based violence instead of victims of gender-based violence, as the latter erases women’s agency and strength. Always be careful to portray people in dignified ways and consult them on how they want to be portrayed.

8. Don’t patronise.

Patronising statements about women’s shortcomings or accomplishments are all too common. Avoid saying things like women need to be educated about their rights or women need to improve their self-esteem. These statements make it seem like women are at fault for the material and educational deprivations they have experienced.

Photo: UNDP Montenegro

Furthermore, always make sure to talk about a woman’s accomplishments as something that happened in spite of structural gender inequalities, not in spite of her being a woman. Don’t say she became president despite being a woman, but she became president despite facing gender inequalities and stereotypes.

9. Focus on facts.

Because gender shapes our lives and identities in so many ways, most of us have strong opinions about gender roles and gender relations. We have to be careful not to infer societal trends based only on our personal experience or anecdotes. Instead, we should focus on what the facts and statistics tell us and consult with experts.

10. Embrace openness.

Challenging our habits and world-views can often be uncomfortable. Applying a gender-responsive lens to the way we communicate is difficult and takes some getting used to. But as long as we are willing to learn and improve, it will become easier as we go along.

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I hope these 10 principles can serve as the basic grammar rules of a new language, one that helps us shape a world of equality and inclusion.

Of course, we know that we can’t resolve gender inequalities just by changing the language we use. But doing so helps shift our perceptions. It shows that as individuals, communities and organisations, we recognise, understand and try to address gender inequalities.

For a more in-depth look at the 10 principles, download the full toolkit here.

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Have we missed anything? Feel free to add in the comment section below.