Inclusive langage, what does research say ?

The masculine as generic: the specific case of he

Although the singular and non-gendered pronoun they was used quite readily in the literature across centuries [3], it met fierce criticism by 19th century prescriptive grammarians, who decided to instead impose the sex-indefinite he. These androcentric grammarians saw the masculine form as the worthier one [3]. Other languages, such as French in the 17th century, underwent very similar changes, consequently asserting the masculine power, both in language and society [4]. In French, for example, the disappearance of certain occupational feminine forms (e.g., une médecine [a doctorfemale]) was in fact intended as a signal to women that these occupations were only for men.  

The difficulty of considering the pronoun he as a generic form has been well documented in the scientific literature [5], and should therefore always be avoided.

Re-introducing the singular use of they – which only relatively recently disappear – would of course require ignoring grammatical proscription (and you may decide that this will be your case), yet it has been shown that its use is at least cognitively very easy [6]. Although the singular use of they is becoming increasingly popular (again), other alternatives may speak to those wishing to follow grammatical proscription yet avoid the use of he as generic. We now turn to concrete examples, which of course will depend on the context at hand:


It is important to also note that some words that are often used in the media to refer to women should be avoided, as they are degrading and patronizing, hence inappropriate. For example, it is not rare to see terms that infantilize women, such as girls used to refer to women (e.g., The girls from the university volleyball team won all their matches). In fact, the word girl(s) (and boy(s)) should only be used for persons that are still in secondary school or lower. Similarly, the word lady should always be avoided, as it implicates lower status and patronization. 

Lastly, when discussing gender (e.g., researchers writing articles about gender effects, university representatives talking to the media,…), avoid the tendency to attribute differences to women. Indeed, social psychology research has revealed a tendency to attribute differences between complimentary social groups, that differ in power, to the lower status group. Gender differences in behavior, for example, are more often explained in terms of how women are different from men, than in terms of how men are different from women [13]. Similarly, differences by race and sexual orientation are more often attributed to features of non-White or non-heterosexual groups than to people who are White or heterosexual [13].  These explanations also have consequences as when a group is positioned as “the effect to be explained” it can make that group appear less powerful, and make existing power differences appear more legitimate. These processes occur to the extent that the higher status group is taken to be the assumed norm or default identity when generating explanations. Therefore, try to always avoid an androcentric perspective in your communications.