Gender-inclusive language has become increasingly important in the US cultural fabric – as well as for marketers. But adoption of gender-inclusive language varies significantly from country to country, presenting forward-thinking global brands with significant challenges.
Inclusive marketing campaigns are gaining traction as businesses recognize the need to engage with people authentically, intentionally, and without bias.
Gender-inclusive marketing is becoming the norm in the US. But not all countries have adopted gender-inclusive language in the same way. For marketing localization, it’s important to understand the extent to which the local target culture is (or is not) embracing changes to their language to reflect gender inclusivity.
Navigating these linguistic and cultural nuances on a global scale may seem daunting. But it’s an effort worth the time – particularly if your company is all about putting people first.
WHAT IS GENDER-INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Inclusive language, specifically gender-neutral, is not prejudiced, stereotyped, discriminatory, or limited to specific viewpoints – intentionally or unintentionally – no matter the situation. As a people-first certified B Corp, at Wordbank, we know inclusivity is critical for connection and belonging. People matter, period.
Many companies are reevaluating the way they do business to take a more people-centered approach and avoid gender stereotypes, too. This lends itself to a more diverse, more rewarding human experience. Besides being the right thing to do, inclusive business practices lead to happier, more productive, engaged staff and increased customer satisfaction.
But what does gender neutrality look like, linguistically?
In English, you may have noticed the sunsetting of biased terms like fireman and actress – both of which unnecessarily ascribe gender, exclude non-binary people, and perpetuate stereotypes. Many stores are reevaluating the way they label bathrooms and toy aisles. And pronouns are increasingly included on social media profiles and email signatures. These small but impactful linguistic trends work to create a more welcoming and safe space for all, and that’s something we can all get behind.
Language reformists and social justice warriors are showing that generations-old assumptions about gender and identity need not apply in 2022. And that kind of people power is here to stay.
LOCALIZING INTO GENDERED LANGUAGES
Many brands are working to market globally with gender-neutral language. But some languages have gender built into their very fabric. We know these to be gendered languages.
The English language is not gendered. Objects (ball, piano, machine) are not grammatically masculine or feminine. And it’s now accepted practice to use the plural “they” pronoun for a single person. English also provides choices of titles (doctor, chairperson, engineer, fire fighter) that do not imply the gender of the human being conducting the role.
But many other languages (Spanish, German, Russian, and Portuguese, for example) are gendered. Each noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter, and gender is an intrinsic part of the grammatical structure.
Many languages also do not have gender-neutral pronouns, though some are being proposed and added to languages in various countries. For example, the Language Council of Norway recently announced its support for the gender-neutral singular pronoun “hen.”
It’s important to understand that for some markets, it may be difficult (if not impossible) to apply the same inclusive language practices as locales that use non-gendered language. Even so, your company can still avoid gender bias. Making sure your English source content is worded neutrally sets your inclusive marketing efforts on the right path before localization even begins.
CONSIDERATIONS ON A GLOBAL MARKETING SCALE
Most marketers are aware that not all countries have evolved their views on inclusivity as Western nations have. And the reasons for that are varied and complex. For example, many Arabic-speaking countries at the bottom of the Global Gender Gap Report aren’t pursuing language reform. Some countries dismiss inclusive language because it’s seen as a strictly Westernized idea.
In the French language, masculine takes priority over feminine. In a group of people, if only one is male, the word for the group is masculine. The pronoun “iel” – used to indicate a person without implying a gender – is being adopted by some groups in France. But, as English-speaking Western cultures saw with the early use of “they” as singular in English, it has also raised much controversy. Only one official French dictionary, so far, has defined the term (and was ridiculed for it). The Académie française oversees the French language in France and is charged with protecting linguistic purity – and it does not (yet) recognize the word “iel.”
The use of gender-inclusive language should be tailored for each locale as part of your marketing localization strategy. Consider your brand positioning and target audience, and how those intersect with local sentiments around gender inclusivity. It’s critical to leverage the insights of on-the-ground, in-country experts. They’ll know the pulse of the market you’re targeting. And they can find ways to be inclusive in a way that makes sense for that market.
DIFFERENT APPROACHES FOR DIFFERENT MARKETS
Approaching international markets with an eye towards inclusivity requires a few considerations:
1. Know your audience.
It’s vital to set aside the assumption that gender-inclusive language approaches that work well in the US will automatically spell success with other global audiences. Understanding international socio-cultural values will inform the localization decisions you make for each of your target markets.
Take, for example, Canada versus France. Like English speakers in Canada, French-speaking Canadians are more accepting of gender-neutral and inclusive language than their counterparts in France. And, fiercely protective of their language and culture, French audiences can be far more sensitive to language and ideals that could be viewed as “Americanisms.” Consult with localization experts who understand local trends for gender neutrality. They’ll let you know how to address these ever-evolving social and language patterns.
2. Align your company’s approach internally before applying language externally.
Making sure your company culture, values, and communication standards align with your marketing messaging is a must. Start by assessing inclusive language use (or lack thereof) internally and address areas for improvement. Then ensure your customer-facing content aligns with these standards. Failing to maintain consistent language in-house while putting a different foot forward externally can damage sentiment and trust in your brand for staff and consumers alike.
3. Acknowledge that gendered languages may require a different approach.
Expanding into a market with masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns doesn’t mean you have to abandon inclusive marketing efforts. Recognize that you cannot change a language’s vocabulary, conjugation, grammar, or existing social mores to fit your strategy. However, skilled in-country linguists may find creative ways to neutrally express terms, roles, and identities within gendered languages as they evolve. For example, in German, the terms Mitarbeiter (masculine) and Mitarbeiterin (feminine) are traditionally used when referring to an employee. Some of our German linguists have found ways around this by using the terms Mitarbeiter/in, Mitarbeiter-in, Mitarbeiter*in, and Mitarbeitende.
INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE & LOCALIZATION: WHERE TO START
Within the US alone, the shift towards inclusive language can vary greatly from industry to industry and from one organization to another. For some brands, it may seem like a big leap to put an inclusive foot forward. Starting the process is the hardest – and best – step to take. So, where to begin?
- Focus on your existing English communication standards before considering translation and localization. Evolving your brand voice is key. Is the content you’re creating internally and externally accessible and inclusive of diverse audiences? Consider revisions on a local level first.
- Designate teams or specific individuals to review and update company brand standards and marketing materials with an eye toward inclusive language.
- Develop style and terminology guides that can be shared within the company and with any language service providers working to localize content. Define your company’s specific vision for inclusive language and maintain that information centrally.
- By making these global Tone of Voice guides accessible to all, you can help content creators to maintain consistency across the organization. And with regular reviews and updates to incorporate localized brand standards and evolving language trends, these living guides can be the source of truth for ongoing and future content localization cycles.
- Budget for outside expertise. In-market linguists and researchers are essential to an accurate and up-to-date picture of your target market’s social and cultural landscape, especially in regards to inclusive language best practices.
As complex as the gender-neutral language trends may be, the effort you make to connect with your audience by acknowledging and accounting for these cultural nuances will ensure local relevance, authenticity, and engagement.
A truly effective marketing localization strategy demands nothing less. And for ambitious global brands, incorporating gender-neutral language is worth the effort, especially if you’re invested in a human-centered approach to business. In-country localization experts will help you navigate cultural and linguistic nuances, ensuring you know exactly what resonates with your target market – and what doesn’t.
In moving toward a more diverse and inclusive world, finding new ways to celebrate what makes us all remarkably human – and understanding the essential role that language and culture plays in that – is key.