It's time to do away with gendered language

Technology, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) seeks to cut out the very work that professional service advisors do.

BY Alexandra Geelan, Lawyer

Gender equality is continuing to dominate news headlines with the #MeToo and @TimesUp movements, near-daily new celebrity endorsements and political scandals. But, alongside the big, headline-making strides that we as a society are making towards gender equality, there are smaller, more subtle actions that each of us can take on a daily basis. 

For lawyers, whose bread and butter is the use (and occasional misuse!) of language, the words we use in our documents and correspondence can have a powerful impact on the perception and status of women, both within our profession and in the wider communities in which we operate. 

In my experience, the starkest example of this is the continued use of gendered pronouns in contracts and in written correspondence. It is unfortunately all too common to come across the general "Dear Sirs," in letters to our firm and male pronouns - "his", "he", "him" - when reviewing and advising on contracts. This is particularly true for standard-form contracts or industry-wide template contracts where each clause is not necessarily reviewed each time the contract is prepared, and it appears that there can even be a number of years between when the contract is used and when it was prepared (as evidenced by outdated legislation references - a rant for another time). This raises some troubling questions about competency and attention to detail, but importantly also demonstrates a failure of legal documents to keep step with advancements in our cultural values. 

What makes this issue even more troubling is that I continue to come across gendered pronouns when contracts are referring to persons in positions of power or authority such as mediators, arbitrators, independent experts, judges, and other positions of prestige. While unintentional, the use of masculine pronouns to refer to authority figures reinforces gender stereotypes and perpetuates misconceptions about people who are fit to hold such positions of power. 

Addressing this issue is incredibly simple. At a firm level, knowledge or precedent managers should undertake a review of existing precedents and template to ensure that inappropriate gendered pronouns are removed and replaced with non-gendered alternatives. For individuals, even the busiest lawyers can spend an extra five minutes reviewing each contract they prepare for gendered pronouns - a simple Ctrl-F on common male pronouns will reveal any slip-ups in seconds. 

In most cases, replacing any gendered pronouns with the party's name or another defined term will be the simplest solution and most straight forward to read. However, in some cases, "it" or "their" will be more suitable, although somewhat less readable. 

In correspondence, it goes without saying the starting correspondence with "Dear Sirs" is outdated and inappropriate. Referring to the addressee by their name or, for firms that like to use stuffy, formal language, "Dear Colleagues" is less offensive than a gendered reference. 

So this is a call to action for all lawyers - let's all play our part in the fight for gender equality by being aware of the power of language, and being conscious of our use of gendered language, from out contractual drafting to our everyday written correspondence with colleagues. 


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