“Dear Madams, Attention John Smith” : The Business Case for Gender Inclusive Language

By Patricia Lane on 2013/04/03

If you received the salutation above in a letter sent to your law firm the disconnect would be obvious. Yet the practice of addressing letters “Dear Sirs, Attention Jane Smith” persists for some. The theory explained is that the letter ought to be addressed to those who hold the legal liability, being the partners, and that naturally the use of the term “Sirs” is meant to include female partners in the same way as the reference to man is often intended to include all humanity, not just males. This doctrine is referred to as the “masculine rule”.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it has been well established in social psychology research for decades now, that regardless of intention, this is not what is perceived by the recipient. The image that is formed when a male term is used is that of a male. Thus the use of the term “Sirs” to include both male and female partners perpetuates the stereotype of the holders of power being male.

The Women Lawyers Forum has been doing work in this area for some time. Happily, we are now getting some expert assistance. Ms Sandra Petersson (legal counsel and research manager at the Alberta Law Reform and mentoring co-chair for the WLF in Edmonton) and Dr. Jila Ghomeshi (associate professor in linguistics at University of Manitoba) presented to a very attentive and interactive audience including all genders, and a range of experience at the Manitoba Mid-Winter Conference. They are very lively presenters and the topics covered included some of the separate issues in French and other languages, and how other countries have been approached this. Former Manitoba WLF chair Karen Dyck reported on the presentation in her article, “Binaries, Triplets and the Use of Gender Neutral Language”, published on Slaw on January 30th, 2013.

We are very pleased to report that the presentation was so engaging and instructive that we have been approved for a session for the CBA Canadian Legal Conference in Saskatoon on August 19, 2013. So you too can have the opportunity to be part of this stimulating discussion

In the July 2012 issue of CBA’s Touchstones I wrote that there are many alternatives to this exclusionary practice of the use of “Dear Sirs”. I suggested that writers can address the particular recipient by name, use the firm name, or refer to the Partners of the law firm. In the article I proposed that another obvious choice is the use of “Dear Sir or Madam.” However, I was very interested to hear the compelling case Dr. Ghomeshi made discouraging the use of this last alternative on the basis that the terms “Sir” and “Madam” are not parallel.

The business case for gender neutral language is simple. Proper gender inclusive language does not offend anyone. With gender exclusive language you run the risk of offending someone by the language being perceived as sexist. And from a purely practical perspective, in our global community it is often hard to know the gender from reading the name of the person. Why would you want to distract your correspondent from your message by using a wrong assumption on gender? Repeating the name of the person in the manner in which you received it is a safe choice.

The Women Lawyers Forum has been discussing the need for gender neutral language in the courtroom, in formal documents, and in conversation as well as in correspondence. By way of an example, while the phrasing “Ladies and Gentlemen” can roll off the tongue pretty easily, “Gentlemen and … Lady” does not. While the person speaking in this example can be congratulated for making sure to include the one woman present, certainly the address “Counsel” is equally respectful, and would avoid the differentiation of counsel by gender, which really isn’t necessary or desirable. My own feeling about the term “lady” is that it carries with it a historic expectation of behavior that encourages deference rather than the assertive stance that is often most appropriate in the legal setting. I believe that typically this is not what is intended, but effect is often independent of intent.

Perhaps the most problematic issue with respect to gendered language is the gender distinction in the singular third person pronoun (he and she). The problem is what to do when you want to refer to a single individual whose gender you do not know. Jila Ghomeshi in her book Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How we Use Language (2010) states that prescriptive grammarians have traditionally recommended the use of “he” as a generic over “he or she.” She comments that in general conversation however, people often use “they” in spite of this being a plural reference, and that the use of the third person plural pronoun as a gender neutral singular has been attested as far back as the 14th century. While “they” involves a disagreement in number, “he” involves a disagreement in gender. She gives the example, “Somebody somewhere is eating their hat.”

If using “they/their/them” as a gender neutral singular just doesn’t sit well with you, there are a number of other ways to replace or avoid using the pronoun “he.” Rosalie Maggio in her book, The Nonsexist Word Finder: A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage (1988) suggests the following: rewrite the sentence in the plural; rewrite the sentence using we/us/our; use the second person (you); recast in the passive voice; rewrite to omit the pronoun entirely; replace the pronoun with an article (“an opinion” rather than “his opinion”); use “he and she” or “his and her,” particularly if you do not need to use a great many of them; or replace the pronoun with a noun. Sandra Petersson quipped that she found it amusing that in the traditional verbosity of legal language there should be such resistance to “he or she”, all seven characters of it! Jila Ghomeshi also recommended the book by Ruth Elizabeth King Talking Gender: A Guide to Nonsexist Communication (1991).

In discussing the issue of gender neutral language with our colleagues, the Women Lawyers Forum members have found that people are often unaware of the gendered nature of their language. This is why we are seeking to bring this to the attention of the profession and create a guideline. Do you still see releases starting “Know All Men By These Presents”? The legislators are well on their way to abolishing unnecessarily gendered terms such as testatrix and administratrix, yet these phrases still abound in legal documents and correspondence, and we often do not think about this.

We welcome your thoughts. In the meantime, a good starting place is to not use the term “Dear Sirs” unless you are addressing a known strictly male audience. And the days of referring to our legal assistants and office staff as “the girls” should be long gone. It is interesting that Maggio’s and King’s books were published more than two decades ago. We have had the answers. We just need to put them into practice.

Patricia Lane practices at Taylor McCaffrey LLP in Winnipeg.


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