Legistics
Gender-neutral Language

Introduction

Gender neutrality is important when writing about people because it is more accurate — not to mention respectful — and is consistent with the values of equality recognized, for example, in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is also professionally responsible and is mandated by the Federal Plan for Gender Equality, which was approved by the Cabinet and presented to the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in 1995.

Recommendations

The need to deal equally with men and women highlights the desirability of drafting using gender-neutral language. Laws that exclude references to the female gender do not promote gender equality. For this reason, gender-specific language should not be used in legislation. Gender-specific words should be replaced with gender-neutral words that have the same meaning. In addition, the following writing techniques should be considered to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun:

  1. use the singular "they" and its other grammatical forms ("them", "themselves" and "their") to refer to indefinite pronouns and singular nouns;
  2. replace the masculine pronoun with an article;
  3. use both pronouns "he" and "she";
  4. use the plural;
  5. use a neutral word or phrase such as "person", "any person", "every person" or "no person";
  6. repeat the noun;
  7. rewrite the sentence in order to eliminate the pronoun completely.

Discussion

In the past, the masculine pronoun was commonly used in the English language to signify the non-specific "he or she". The Interpretation Act provides that references to female persons include male persons and vice versa. Subsection 33(1) reads:

33. (1) Words importing female persons include male persons and corporations and words importing male persons include female persons and corporations.

It is now generally well-accepted that gender-specific language should only be used for references to persons of one gender or the other, for example in provisions that deal with women taking maternity leave. In all other cases, it should be avoided.

Drafting Techniques

There are a number of ways to avoid using gender-specific language. Many gender-specific terms may be replaced with gender-neutral terms that have the same meaning. Of course, current drafting practices already require that legislative counsel select gender-neutral terms over gender-specific terms. For example:

Avoid Use
chairman chairperson ("chair" is rarely used in federal Statutes)
fireman firefighter
policeman police officer
businessman business executive/entrepreneur/business person
workman worker
foreman supervisor
cameraman camera operator
mailman letter carrier
waiter / waitress server
stewardess flight attendant
fisherman fisher

Note that the pronoun(s) that follow may also need to be changed when any of the above suggestions are used.

There are also a number of writing techniques that may be used to avoid gender-specific pronouns. The technique that will be most appropriate in a particular case will depend on the sentence. What is effective in one situation may not be useful in another. For this reason, the options below have not been listed in any order of preference.

Further Reading