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Has Gender Neutrality Gone Too Far?

I recently had a client ask me to review their employee policies that had been drafted by a co-op student.  Throughout the document the term “his/her” had been replaced with “hir”. At first I thought this student, like my children when they text, had created a strange word to describe employees generally. When I questioned my client about the word I was told that this the new way of describing both sexes in a way that is gender neutral. Sure enough, when I looked up the word on the internet, Wikipedia defines the term as a “gender neutral pronoun”.

Now, I consider myself to be a feminist – I kept my last name when I got married, my bank account is separate from my husband’s, I believe in equal rights between the sexes and I hope that I am teaching my four kids (two girls and two boys – told you I believe in equality!!) that men and women should be treated equally except when it comes to taking out the garbage (sorry guys but that’s just gross and we got stuck with childbirth). I also don’t consider myself to be overly political – I don’t write letters to the editor of my local paper over the various injustices I read about and I don’t tend to get too excited about what is going on in the world – there is enough excitement in my own life that requires my attention and energy. Having said all this – I do feel compelled to express my thoughts about this new word that strikes me as completely unnecessary. Is it simply a sign of our times that people are too lazy to use “him/her” when writing? If so, then why not just write “their” or “they” or “them”. Do we really need a new word in our vocabulary to describe a group of people without reference to gender, especially one that makes me feel like I should be clicking my heels and saluting a nasty red and black flag?

When I was in law school, there was a group of what I will call “extreme” feminists who would not use the term “person” because it contained the word “son”. Instead, they called people “perpers”. Fortunately, that term didn’t catch on….hopefully “hir” will meet the same fate as people come to appreciate that we don’t need more gender neutral terms to create gender equality. Until then, I will stick to “his/her” – or perhaps “her/his” to show my solidarity!!



  1. Susan, I can’t agree with you more! Why is it that it only takes a few people with an agenda to change things when nothing is wrong in the first place. I’ll bet that more than a few men would not like to be referred to as “hir”. If this catches on, can you just imagine what turmoil there could be with the french language where everything starts with “la” or “le” and refers to the object as masculine or feminine. Good for you for speaking out.

    • I fully disagree. A change in our language is 50 years overdue. This is the first I’ve heard of “hir” but I’ve heard others (which, unfortunately, were probably a bit too Germanic for easy adoption).

      I’m always reminded of the US primary elections, when George W. Bush was ending his second term and talking about the role of the incoming president. There were two candidates, one male (I forget who, at the moment) and the other was Hilary Clinton. So Bush goes on to say: “He will have to …, and he will be lead …, and he willl….”. So how many viewers do you think were thinking about Hilary at each “he” reference? None. And this is how women continue to fail to achieve the top echelons of power. It’s subtle.

      And has no one noticed that women, who represent 50% of the population, are constantly being referred to as “he”? Does that not bother you? Now the trend is that we’re also “guys”. It’s an insidious way of saying that we’re outsiders playing on someone else’s turf.

      In the 90’s there was a big focus on using gender-neutral nouns to describe occupations – no more. News reports now refer to the firemen or policemen on the scene – is there no probability that there are female firefighters and police officers on the scene? Society is not supporting women in these non-traditional roles when we use generalized terms such as these.

      And have you noticed that when there is a reference to a male board chair, the reference is chairman, but when it’s a woman, the term is chair or chairperson (sometimes, chairwoman)? So gender neutrality only kicks in when the person referenced is a woman. God forbid that a male chair be called a “chair” lest we diminish his manhood.

      What does gender have to do with any of these professions? My preference would be that a gender neutral term be used even when the gender of the referenced party is known. It should be spokesperson, for example, regardless of who is speaking.

      It is only when this becomes commonplace that gender bias in selection of role candidates can truly be eliminated. My own observations are that, when it comes to senior positions, men of any culture are preferred to women. (Yes, there are exceptions, I realize. But you get my point. Women are not 50% of all CEOs, nor are they 50% of corporate boards, or even 50% of senior management teams.)

      The default “he” to refer to everyone continues to carry the message that women are included grudgingly.

      So I for one fully support a review of gender biased terms throughout English and other languages. The terms we devise for he/she, him/her, his/her, etc need be easy to use, not imply either gender by default, and must be broadly adopted. I, for one, experience that women, more than men, using gender neutral language in their communication. Men, less so. So what would happen if we adopted these new pronouns and terms? I can tell you: many women will use them, and some enlightened men. Other men will stubbornly refuse, probably claiming that the change is too difficult, but their non-adoption will more likely be due to an underlying wish that everything go back to the days of a patriarchal society.

      This language issue, to me, is the primary reason that gender inequity still flourishes. I, for one, believe we need to make a change, and now.

  2. Well…I think that I may finally have to concede to the fact that our language is going to change, and not always for the better. But I certainly don’t have to like it!

    Susan, you make a great point that there are already words that can be used (i.e. their). My pet peeve: I cringe when the word “got” is used…it was never a word in the dictionary, but people used it as the past tense of “get”. However, it is now in the dictionary, so I must stop complaining.

    I was informed last week that we are no longer to use 2 spaces after a period because it is not necessary, it leaves too much space between words, and it is time consuming to hit the space bar twice!! GEEZ! (I’m not sure about other punctuation) How lazy are we becoming?

    Did I just get off topic a bit? I hope not!


  3. To me, this “hir” thing just seems like political correctness gone too far. I too am very much in favour of removing barriers to full participation of women in the workplace, but I don’t need the word “manhole” to be changed to “maintenance cover” in order to feel like I can work in the construction industry and make my contribution. The same is true of the words Chairman, Manager, Congressman, etc.

    I write a lot of policies in my career. The trick to clean language is ensuring you have agreement between the noun and the pronoun. (e.g. Employee = his/her and employees = their) that is unless the grammar police decide to officially give up on this rule.

    Thanks Susan for this fun and thought-provoking blog.

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