I sat down and opened my email. “Gents,” the first message began. I checked the “To” line and counted the names of six women. “Congratulations on another successful month of recruiting! The station made mission.” I checked the list of that day’s Mission Makers. Women made up half of the list. I hit the reply button and typed: “Sir, in future correspondence it would be better to use ‘Marines,’ ‘Team,’ or ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ since you are addressing a mixed gender group.” I typed a few more sentences before signing off. Later that afternoon I received a reply. “‘Gents’ is a gender-neutral term because it is short for both gentlemen and gentlewomen.”
I don’t know how often in your life you use “gentlewomen”, but according to the Oxford English dictionary it’s an archaic term and only used today in the chambers of Congress. I hardly make the cut. From small daily occurrences like email greetings to large-scale studies about women in combat, female service members are bombarded with overt and subliminal messages about their place in the service. In 2018, the Marine Corps said it would remove unnecessary pronouns from written materials, but four years later this still has not happened completely. Service-produced media since then contains unnecessarily gendered terms, and service members frequently default to male-centric verbiage. Language reflects the inherent biases of the speaker or author and influences the recipient. Because of this, the armed forces should take the removal of gendered terms in written and spoken language seriously.
The use of male-centric language is in no short supply in the military. When a statement is communicated about a hypothetical, unknown, or unspecified person, the male pronoun is the standard default. A noncommissioned officer stating that a new sailor arrived at the unit is asked “What is his name?” Students at a professional military education course discuss military doctrine with questions like “How should a commander employ his troops in this scenario?” The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test Proctor course describes pullups by saying, “At no time during the execution of this event can a Marine rest his chin on the bar.” Some defend this language choice by saying most of the armed forces are male; statistically speaking, this is true. Considering the rarity of female commanders, especially in a combat setting, any historical references will support the presumption of the commander being male. The photo accompanying the physical fitness instructions showed a male Marine. However, language choice reflects more about the communicant’s inherent biases than any factual support for the choice.
Words evoke mental images, and, in turn, we speak based on those images. If I ask you to describe your childhood home, you will not give me facts like square footage, the year it was built, or the street address. You will describe the big front porch, floral wallpaper, or the way sunshine filled the kitchen every morning. In this same way, when a speaker uses generic male verbiage, they are revealing their unconscious mental image. A petty officer describing a billet they need filled says, “The sailor that fills this billet is expected to be organized. They should have a solid understanding of naval letter formatting because correspondence will be his responsibility.” The word choice reveals the unconscious (or conscious) mental image of the sailor who will fill that billet. They expect, or envision, a male sailor in the role. When made consciously aware, most speakers will deny any bias. If that petty officer is asked, “Can a female sailor hold this billet?” he will answer “Yes, of course. He or she should have good communication skills.”
British comedian James Acaster has a stand-up routine in which he says, “I like when people say ‘he or she.’ Because ‘he or she’ is only ever said by men who fully intended on just saying ‘he,’ but at the very last second remembered that ‘she’ exists.” When generic male terms are used for hypothetical, unknown, or unspecified persons, it reveals the unconscious bias of the speaker or writer. That bias gets passed on to the recipient. A first sergeant reminding platoon leaders about post-deployment awards says, “We need to acknowledge the good work our Marines did. If you have a Marine to recognize, send me his name and a summary of action for what he did.” The platoon leadership will more easily recall the names, faces, and efforts of their male Marines over their female Marines. It will require conscious effort, or some other stimulus (such as a roster) for them to recall a woman because the pronouns of “his” and “he” evoked the mental image of a male Marine. If the receivers do not work to counteract the sender’s biased language, their perceptions, expectations, and behavior will be influenced.
Why is this important to the armed forces? Let’s go back to the example of the petty officer filling a billet. It was assumed that when they said “he” it was meant to be generic and the listeners would know the billet was open to both men and women. In the military, that is not a fair assumption. Until 2016, combat roles were closed to women. However, in non-combat occupations women are often kept out of billets or assignments that have the potential to lead to enemy engagement. Leaders, consciously or unconsciously, assign female service members to tasks deemed less hazardous or demanding. The same mindset frequently applies to course nominations, training exercises, and other opportunities. This is evidenced by the fact that women are still achieving firsts in ranks, assignments, and certifications unrelated to combat.
A common rebuttal I hear to this argument is, “Why do women not ask? They are just as guilty for assuming they are not allowed.” This is best explained by an analysis of three different studies on gender-exclusive language. The studies showed when male-centric language was used during a mock job interview, women applicants experienced a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job than when the interviewer used gender inclusive (he or she) or gender neutral (one/[they]) language. The studies also showed that these effects worsened over the length of the interview. The more times female applicants heard male-centric language, the more ostracized they felt. Given that these studies establish this pattern of behavior over the course of a single mock interview, extrapolating the effects to women over years of military service is sobering.
Expecting women to automatically decode male-centric language also can lead to confusion. In a personal anecdote, I was supervising a co-ed athletic competition. Before the start of an event, the official said to one team, “I need one more guy to go to the other end of the field.” When no one moved, he pointed to a young woman and said “You, go down there.” She looked at him with genuine confusion and replied, “You said you needed a guy.” In the workplace, a statement like “I need a few guys to unload this pallet” can lead to less participation by women and a perceived sense of overburden by men, thereby increasing unconscious bias of women’s abilities and contributions. In contrast, a statement such as “I need a few sailors to unload this pallet” elicits participation from every individual wearing the uniform.
James Acaster’s stand-up routine is comedy, but all great comedy is based on elements of truth. In the same routine referenced previously, he describes the difference between saying “he,” “he or she,” and “they.” I will leave debate surrounding the use of a singular “they” to the linguists, and instead focus on the effects on the recipient. Psychologists have studied different outcomes in the use of pronouns and found an interesting variety of results. Numerous studies have shown that using masculine generics is the least suitable choice for promoting gender equality. In one study, 80 percent of participants interpreted the generic “he” as being male. In another study, when he/she was used participants were more likely to choose answers reflecting their own gender. This shows a positive correlation for a sense of inclusion among the female readers. They did not have to do the mental labor to overcome the “generic male” and envision a woman (or arguably themselves) in the scenario. However, when “they” was used, there was no statistical preference for one gender over another. This shows that the reader’s own gender did not influence the hypothetical person’s gender. Taking this back to the example of the first sergeant requesting award nominations, requesting “his accomplishments” shifts bias for nominations to males, “his or her accomplishments” shifts bias to the platoon leader’s own gender, and “their accomplishments” allows for unbiased consideration of all service members’ performance.
The use of gendered language does not only affect awards, promotions, or billet assignments. It also creates an effect known as “priming” in which an individual’s thoughts and behavior are unconsciously conditioned. What happens if I read “An infantryman knows his job is to attack the enemy at his most vulnerable time. He will exploit any opportunity he finds in the battlefield?” I am primed to see the infantry Marine and the enemy as men. When I see a woman standing in front of me, I am going to doubt she is an infantry Marine, doubt her ability to exploit tactical opportunities, or doubt that she could potentially be an enemy combatant. The armed forces’ ability to trust each other, regardless of visible or invisible demographics, is crucial to mission accomplishment. Priming biased thought and behavior by using gendered language undermines our own success as a unit and could potentially make us more vulnerable to enemy actions.
When the Sea Services announced their efforts in 2016 to remove pronouns or change occupation names, there was quite a bit of backlash. Those opposed to the measures expressed feelings of overreaching political correctness. Many based their arguments on the stance of they’re just words. One person commented on a Navy Times story, “If a woman isn't going to consider making the Navy her career because she is called a fireman or a corpsman, then I don't think she was going to make the Navy a career period.” For those who feel this way, I challenge them to spend a day using female-centric language. After all, if they’re just words, saying “A corpswoman provides medical care to a sailor and her family. She may also serve with Marines, attached to an infantry unit, expected to tend wounded infantrywomen in combat” should have no effect on the speaker or the listener.
For many in and out of the armed forces, the time, money, and energy spent on gendered language seems unnecessary. Why spend money updating publications when we could put it towards new equipment? Taking the removal of gendered terms in written and spoken communication seriously will increase unit cohesion, reduce negative effects of discrimination, and align with the talent management requirements of the Department of Defense. Altogether, it will increase our capabilities as a force in the defense of our nation and make for more effective mission accomplishment. The burden of inclusion rests on the organization, not on the women excluded by gendered language.