Reflecting on gender-neutral language on International Pronouns Day (Oct 20, 2021)

I haven’t posted since May???? Wow…

Recently a discussion came up related to the use of gender-neutral language in our writing. Actually, the conversation initially was about ‘the use of they/them’ in our web content, as well as in the task scenarios we put in front of users in the usability tests we conduct in designing our web content.

Although there are some resources available on how to apply gender-neutral language, I seized the opportunity to have a discussion with other members of my UXRD team about our role in representing diversity through our writing of task scenarios (or not). A colleague of mine did some research and pulled together some great resources, and then we opened the floor. We didn’t want to position ourselves as advisors, but simply provide some information and facilitate a discussion.

Typical disclaimer: this post represents my opinions and not those of my employer or others I work with.

The Canada.ca Content Style Guide advises:

But, what does “gender-inclusive writing” mean? And, is avoiding references to gender actually inclusive? The challenge with this sort of guidance is that there are no measures or examples for people to follow. People may attempt to follow this guidance, but do so in directly opposing ways.

Resources from the Language Portal of Canada on gender inclusivity: pronouns state that it is not acceptable to default to the generic masculine he/his, and provides guidance on alternative ways to write in a more inclusive way.

Generic writing tips for pronouns from the Language Portal of Canada. Thanks Arda for laying this out nicely!

With this guidance, it seems some people believe this means we must strip all mentions of gender from anything we write.

They/them: are we using a generic pronoun, or a specific non-binary pronoun?

One thing that is tricky about the idea of using they/them to be gender-inclusive is that it’s also a pronoun that some individuals use. So — bear with me here — when we use they/them, ARE we being generic and inclusive of all gender identities, or as we using a specific gender identity, and not being inclusive of those who use she/her or he/him pronouns?

Do we only need to worry about gender-neutrality when dealing with the hypothetical?

I feel as though we’re missing some nuance here: these tips are for when we are speaking in the hypothetical or about an unknown person. I believe that if we do know the gender of a person, we can refer to them using those markers.

For example, if we were to write about Justin Trudeau, it’s ok to say “he forgot his umbrella”. It is ok to use a pronoun that isn’t inclusive of all genders, because we are talking about a specific person who identifies a certain way.

Is being gender-neutral actually inclusive?

Let’s be honest. Using “they” instead of “he” or “she” is not difficult. It may take a bit of practice until it becomes commonplace, but it’s not a hard change to make. But there was something that didn’t sit quite right with me to just ‘erase gender’.

If you know much about me, you may know I’m a woman, and I’m married to another woman. I refer to my wife Sara fairly often in conversation, because she’s awesome and I’m proud of her. I don’t refer to “my partner” although that gender-neutral term is pretty common in Canada. I explicitly choose to label her as ‘my wife’ to normalize the idea of same-sex marriage.

When I write task scenarios that include non-Anglo-saxon names, non-traditional gender roles or pronouns, or homosexual relationships, I do that because I believe it helps normalize minority or marginalized groups in society. As User Experience practitioners, if we are not trying to advocate for or recognize the diversity of the population we’re designing for, who will?

Not that writing a task scenario is enough, to be clear. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a tiny step towards remembering that we’re not designing for ourselves, and just maybe we can identify some situations where what we do may inadvertently exclude someone or cause them harm.

Are drafting task scenarios the time and place for this diversity stuff?

I obviously have an opinion on this, but I wanted to get the perspective of my team whether they thought our scenarios should reflect the diversity of our website users.

So, I asked them :)

I facilitated a session using FigJam, and invited members of our team to post anonymously. We spent about 6 minutes answering the following:

  1. “Should” our scenarios represent the diversity of people accessing our website?
  2. Do we have to agree on practices? Does our team need an official stance?
  3. What resources are “good enough” to support/defend our approach?
  4. Is being gender-neutral inclusive, or does it ignore people’s experiences?
Four discussion questions the team responded to

I spent some time before we kicked off the session trying to establish that this was a safe space, and the point of FigJam was that everyone would have the time and space to reflect and share their perspectives.

Obviously I’m going to respect everyone’s privacy and not share all the details of the discussion, but I found it really insightful. I believe the format did help people feel comfortable sharing their perspectives, and we were able to dig into a few of the responses people left.

One interesting comment was that the focus on usability testing is the task itself, so are we doing anything that may distract from that purpose. Really, that was why I queued up the initial question about whether we ‘should’ represent that diversity. We make up a scenario and ask people to complete that task with that person (loosely) in mind. Does this really build empathy? Will it uncover gaps in our service delivery or content? Honestly, probably not.. But perhaps there are other less tangible benefits (representation) that we can gain.

In the end, did we resolve anything? Ha — I’m not sure. But I think that’s ok: this is a difficult, heavy subject. But I’m really glad that we took the time to discuss it as a team, and I hope we can continue to do more reflection to be intentional about our work as UX practitioners.

Note: shortly after I published this, Sara told me that Shopify has the following guidance in their design system. So, sharing this resource for further consideration.

I still think this is focusing on the generic/unknown/hypothetical, so the question of using diverse names/pronouns in task scenarios isn’t explicitly addressed, but regardless: Accessible and inclusive language — Shopify Polaris

Sr UX Specialist with Canada Revenue Agency, former web dev and product person. 🔎 Lifelong learner. Unapologetic introvert. Plant-powered marathoner. Cat mom.