Who will be the next female President of the Republic of Portugal?

I imagine the question made you think of women. Possibly you thought of women who have already applied - or perhaps you had difficulty imagining women who might now apply.

Another question: would you think of women if the question was asked in the masculine form?

The question "who will be the next President of the Republic?" typically makes us think of the images we have already seen, in a country that so far has only had men holding this office. We tend to remember images from the past to project the future. And for this question we may have more possible answers, because we always find it easier to imagine men in leadership positions. The profile always seems more adequate, the fit more comfortable.

Is the masculine in our language ever truly neutral? It doesn't seem so.

A gender-neutral question would be"who will be the next person to be elected President of the Republic?" In this case we might be able to think of women right away, depending on the weight of memories and images we have. Or maybe not.

But if we ask "who will be the next or the next female President of the Republic?", it is harder to forget to equate women.

That is because language matters, because it is not only a consequence of how we think: it is often language that makes us think (or not), it is language that determines our choices and actions.

The impact of the three formulations of the same question is quite different: the masculine "neutral" question reinforces the past, which kept women out of the public and political space; the neutral question reinforces the present, still with a large ballast of discrimination (namely in access to leadership positions) that comes from that past; the question that makes feminine and masculine explicit forces us to try to imagine a better future.

The debate about inclusive language always generates resistance, starting with the laziness that is usually associated with anything new - and that requires learning. But it is time to realize that we lose a lot if we do not overcome this laziness. And that it is not that hard to do so.

In a company, it is always crucial to avoid the "false neutral" (i.e. the masculine) that makes us forget about women:

  • because it matters that people with the right skills for leadership roles are effectively considered, with the notion that we are even more resistant (as a matter of habit) to imagining women in positions of power;
  • because it is important that the institutional design (including working hours and methodologies) ensures that both women and men reconcile work with personal and family life;
  • because our culture is very much based on inequality - and taught from the moment we are born - it even ends up with women being typically exposed to more dimensions of life than men (including the core dimension of caring); remembering the existence of women at every step - and always including women in decision-making processes - can help us better understand the world we live in and that often this is not the world we were taught to see; indeed, in general, diversity at all different levels (of gender, racial-ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc.) contributes to more informed and appropriate decisions to the reality, because our history of inequality means that there is still a lot of relevant data that is only known by those who are the target of this inequality.

The "masculine neutral" is always false, in language and in practices. Ideally, each company will therefore design and implement its equality plan, which includes language. But starting with language, how then can we make it inclusive?

A simple way that has always worked for me: talk and write by starting by thinking that there are only women in the world; and then add men (we are unlikely to forget men, there is no risk in leaving them for last).

Women are not parentheses as in "Dear Friends," they are as central as men. And, when possible, they should come first to remind us that they tend to always come later in our thinking: "Dear friends". Or, without bars, "dear friends".

And, of course, there are several neutral words that we can favor instead of using gendered words - because it is also good that we can ensure some economy in communication and avoid many slashes in written language. Look at this text: how many times do the slashes appear?

<span>We could have said "this is not the world he/she were taught to see" but we could opt to say "this is not the world they were taught to see" and it is resolved.</span>

It is not difficult to write and speak and think in inclusive language; the guide published by the IGC helps - and there are several alternative formulations that have been proposed, not least because inclusive language can and should also be thought of to include other power minorities, such as LGBT+ people.

But, if we really want to use gender and avoid slashes or repetitions, why not alternate feminine and masculine throughout a text? And, of course, whenever we want to think about dimensions from which women have typically been excluded - like the Presidency of the Republic - let's make it explicit, let's emphasize it, let our imagination see further.

Our future may even be better than our past.

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