15 November 2021

‘Ladies through gentlemen’, I can support that


The academic world is saturated with male stereotypes. It’s long overdue that those social norms and the accompanying language are extended to include non-masculine identities, finds professor Jacintha Ellers.

In recent months a lot of attention has been paid to diversity and inclusivity at VU Amsterdam. And rightly so. A safe working and learning environment where you can be yourself is unbelievably important for every person’s wellbeing. As a woman in a predominantly male environment, I’m highly aware of how frustrating it can be if you are not seen and heard as an equal. Even in 2021, masculine language use, behaviours, manners, tone of voice, body language and ways of thinking still dominate academic meetings and committees far too much. We clearly have a long way to go in achieving diversity in academe in the Netherlands.

New initiatives aimed at creating a more inclusive work and learning environment are springing up all around us. But they almost always propose changing to gender-neutral language based on American models, where every reference to sex or sexual orientation now has to be avoided. While in recent decades there has been a drive to replace ‘he’ with ‘he/she’, that now has to change to ‘they’. Lecturers should also no longer be allowed to start their lectures by saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, but with ‘Good morning students’.

Unfortunately, such well-intentioned attempts at gender-inclusive language use usually backfire in Dutch. In opposition to English, Dutch has a masculine and a feminine form for practically every way of designating a person or profession. ‘Student’ in Dutch refers to a male person who is thirsty for knowledge, and the feminine form is ‘studente’. In this way we not only exclude all nonbinary people, but we also make roughly half of the human population invisible.

By shifting the slash in f/m to a dash f-m so that it expresses a whole continuum of sexual identities

The lecture hall is not the only place where semantics can be a source of controversy. In the trains it has recently become common for all women travellers to be systematically ignored, and in job advertisements we are no longer allowed to use ‘f/m’ to indicate that women will be given priority in cases of equal qualifications. The dominant image of the man as social standard is only reinforced by these initiatives.

Whoever thinks that the masculine bias in our language is not so bad ought to try just for a lark consistently replacing ‘he’ and ‘his’ with ‘she’ and her’ when referring to a non-specific individual. I do that regularly and it’s remarkable how much astonishment and discomfort it causes. It demonstrates how habituated we are to thinking in terms of masculine stereotypes, and how great the necessity is to extend our societal norms to include non-masculine identities.

The nice thing is that with a bit of creativity, the Dutch language offers sufficient potential for being inclusive. For example, by replacing ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ with ‘Ladies through gentlemen’, or shifting the slash in f/m to a dash f-m so that it expresses a whole continuum of sexual identities. Let’s embrace sexual diversity and not avoid it!

Would you like to leave a comment? Please send an email to redactie.advalvas@vu.nl.

Jacintha Ellers is professor of evolutionary ecology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.



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