Using language to tackle gender power imbalances

“How come you always use both the masculine and the feminine while speaking to us?”, asks one of the Italian students participating in the Gender ABC project during the first session of the educational programme.

In Italian, nouns, adjectives, pronouns and at times even verbs are either masculine or feminine; neutral words are rather uncommon. However, when speaking to a class full of boys and girls, the majority of school personnel only use the masculine. It is not very different from when people in English say “Hi guys”, when addressing both men and women. This is due to the supposed neutrality generally attributed to the male gender, which is not neutral. And this of course happens in schools as in the rest of the society, even though things are slowly changing.

In most of the Italian schools where the Gender ABC educational programme was implemented, students noticed during the very first session that project educators were speaking differently. They asked questions and realised probably for the first time that when we use a gender inclusive language, we also start seeing the society in a different way and understanding the role women and girls play in it. Gender ABC educators also made examples to show how language has an influence on roles and imbalances in society, highlighting that we frequently use the masculine for jobs related to higher power or income, such as minister, lawyer and CEO. We use masculine for professor, and feminine for teacher, masculine for doctor and feminine for nurse. The female image is, in fact, often denigrated using stereotypical language that represents it as subordinate to the male image.

Students and class teachers realised that by using the feminine forms when appropriate, we also acknowledge that when a woman is a minister it is not an exception, but just one of the possibilities, and they committed to always adopt a gender inclusive language.