Talk the Talk: Gender-inclusive language to advance gender equality
The weight of words is not to be underestimated. Our communication – be it spoken or written – impacts the sender, recipient, as well as the inactive audience. The words a person chooses reflect their thought process, often shape that of others, and may unconsciously perpetuate gendered assumptions. In this way, language and its transmission mirrors the state of society and the biases active within it. Importantly, the way we communicate is ever-evolving. It transcends personal and professional lives because it can have powerful implications on societal notions, like gender equality.
Though women make up half of our population, there is a disproportionate presence of masculine terms throughout our words and expressions. In small yet systematic ways, this language contributes to stereotypes about masculine and feminine roles.
Gender-inclusive language combats unconscious bias, promotes gender equality, and enlightens the source of our perceptions and behaviours. Embracing the principles of human rights and equality, individuals and institutions alike can work to reject harmful belief systems capable of reinforcing discrimination against women.
In an effort to institutionalise gender-inclusive language, the NATO Human Security Unit (formally Women, Peace and Security Team), the International Staff Translation Service and relevant divisions, produced an informative manual for all civilian and military personnel across the Alliance.
The NATO Gender-Inclusive Language Manual is an insightful tool offering communication techniques to use in everyday correspondence. From pronouns to professional job titles, the Manual and its French counterpart provide helpful examples of inclusive language to enhance understanding and application at the individual and organisational levels.
NATO’s embracing of the Women, Peace and Security agenda and development of tools such as the gender-inclusive language manual usher in an important and institutional shift of mindset. Both purposeful and practical, the manual has yielded simple yet steady results.
Chairman → Chair
In May 2021, the NATO Military Committee brought together all 30 Allied Chiefs of Defence to discuss NATO 2030, Military Strategic adaptation and planning, and NATO-led operations, missions andactivities. At this meeting, former Chair Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach announced that the position would henceforth be Chair, no longer Chairman. The Allied Chiefs welcomed the change in title and agreed that the Armed Forces should reflect the societies they protect and be as diverse as they are inclusive.
"Developing and maintaining high standards for ourselves is crucial. Setting the example and encouraging high standards in other militaries around the world is also important. We have made progress and while there remains much work to do, I am proud to see this title changed."
- Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, former Chair of the Military Committee
Manpower → Workforce
The NATO Military Committee seeks to discontinue the use of the term ‘manpower’ in all its forms. This decision warranted the retitling of the NATO Defence Manpower Committee and the NATO Defence Manpower Audit Authority. Since 1 July 2021, the titles reflecting workforce are applicable to the Military Committee and all its subordinate bodies.
The gender-inclusive language manual’s influence has been felt far and wide among NATO’s International Staff.
"The NATO Office of Resources produces hundreds of documents a year that are accessible to a far-reaching audience comprised of various entities, from NATO Military Authorities to Allies and Partners. Our words have the power to both exclude and include our stakeholders. It is our collective responsibility to uphold the principle of inclusiveness by paying attention to the language we use. The Gender- Inclusive Language manual helps us do that."
- Dana Bekri, NATO Office of Resources
Inclusion and impact
Simply put: our words matter. The concepts they construct are powerful precedents for our behaviors. Often unintentionally, our language invokes gendered notions of expectations and roles for women and men, challenging the achievement of gender equality. It is our responsibility to dissect bias from our diction and carry on inclusively in our personal and professional lives. By doing so, we eliminate the danger of discriminatory language and welcome more equitable exchanges for all. This shift requires a reorientation of mindset and commitment to promote gender equality in our communication. As we know, the journey of mainstreaming gender is not one trekked overnight. And NATO is acting to not only walk the walk, but also talk the talk, by embedding inclusion in our everyday language.