Whether communicating in contentious or non-contentious scenarios, one of the first principles of correspondence is to avoid discriminatory language. It’s also vital to steer away from gender-based assumptions or expressions if we want to retain our audience’s attention.
Keeping your audience engagedWhen we create any form of written communication, it’s usually because we want our audience to know something or do something as a result of reading it. And ensuring they read it means drafting it in language that is respectful, inclusive and relevant to them.
This is where gender-neutral drafting comes in. If language appears to perpetuate old stereotypes or gender-biased expressions, many readers will switch off before they get to the core message. Not a good start.
The issue of gender-neutral language arises frequently in salutations. Where we’re writing to one person and we know their name, it’s straightforward. However, that’s not the case when writing to a person whose name or gender we don’t know. Similarly, Dear Sir/Madam is not appropriate for recipients who are non-binary and don’t identify as masculine or feminine.
This also applies when we address a diverse or collective group, which could include people of both genders as well as non-binary people.
As part of their guidance on gender-neutral drafting, our colleagues at RPC have created some helpful guidance and have kindly allowed us to share this relevant section of it with you here.
As with all guidance, we advise you to use your discretion and personal knowledge of your addressees. However, you’ll see that in all cases, the use of Dear Sir/Madam and Messrs, are dispensed with.
RPC guidance on gender-neutral salutations
Use this guide where you’re writing to groups of people or where you don’t know your recipient’s name.
|Who you're writing to
|Law firm or other professional partnership
|Use the name of the partnership or LLP
|Dear Slaughter and May
Dear Grant Thornton
Use the name of the company or the board (depending on context)
|Group of individuals
|Use 'all' or identify them by role or use first names (if appropriate in the context)
|Government body or regulator
|Use the name of the department/agency
Dear Companies House
|Claimant or litigant in person
|Use their first name and last name but avoid using Mr / Mrs / Ms etc.
|Dear Jane Smith
Address to the Court Manager for general filings. If writing to a specific department, address to that department.
Dear Court Manager*
Dear Commercial Judges Listing*
Dear Judge* **
* Note the use of upper case in nouns (Directors, Shareholders, Court Manager, Judge, etc)
** The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has published this official guidance on addressing members of the judiciary.
The pros of neutral pronounsBe aware, too, of gender-biased pronouns and adjectives. Traditional defaults such as he, him and his and she, her and hers when referring to unspecified people, or those first referred to by their job title, should be avoided. They can give the impression that you assume that a person of a particular gender will do a particular job or perform a particular role.
So, when referring to an expert in an expert determination clause, you may correctly refer to the firm or partnership as the expert. And rather than state the identity of Counsel, such as a barrister determining liability, the word Counsel will suffice.
Gender-inclusive adjectives and nouns
So embedded are gender-stereotypes in our language that we may be using a whole range of them without even realising it. Here are just a few of the more common nouns and adjectives that can be neutralised:
- Man made (use human made)
- Man/mankind (humans/humankind)
- Chairman (chairperson)
- Keyman, ie insurance (key person)
- Landlord/landlady (property owner)
- Husband/wife (spouse)
- Salesman/saleswoman (salesperson)
You’ll no doubt be able to add many more to this list. However, the key is to proof your writing with a gender-neutral eye and edit any gender-specific meanings or assumptions. It may feel unnatural at first but eventually, it’ll become second nature.
For more great gender-neutral drafting tips for legal professionals, see the Guide to Gender-Neutral Drafting (2019), produced by InterLaw Diversity Forum, Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Government Legal Department.
Writing in a gender-neutral style is about showing that you respect your readers by communicating in an unassuming way. It also demonstrates your organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Another benefit is that it helps keep your audience engaged with your messages and your lines of communication open with everyone. If you struggle to start with, persevere as it’ll soon come naturally. And remember, review your writing with an eye for some of those less obvious gender stereotypes.