Fair Representation of the Genders in French: Gender-inclusive Writing at Status of Women Canada, 2011

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Table of contents

1. Preamble

Status of Women Canada is a federal government agency working to promote gender equality and ensuring the full participation of women in Canada's economic, social, cultural and political life.

To promote equality, it is not enough to pass legislation or establish affirmative-action policies; attitudes and culture must change. In 1970, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women noted "the easy generalizations…of the concept of womanhood, that fill so much of the literature, thought and even languages of western countries"Footnote 1, and language is the primary carrier of culture. Hence the importance of ensuring that women are fairly depicted in writing, especially in a language like French, which indicates gender.

2. Definitions

Describes a writing technique or text that equitably highlights the presence of women and men. That presence is expressed through the use of words that refer to women and men alike (i.e. through neutral constructions) or that specifically talk about both women and men (i.e. through syntactical feminization) Footnote 2.
lexical feminization
A process where a masculine noun or title is converted to feminine. Thus, rédacteur [male writer] becomes rédactrice [female writer], agent financier supérieur [senior financial officer (male)] becomes agente financière supérieure [senior financial officer (female)] etc.
syntactical feminization
A writing process where women and men are specifically mentioned, mainly through the use of doublets in the sentences (e.g. Le gouvernement souhaite consulter les citoyennes et citoyens [the government wants to consult with male citizens and female citizens]).
Said of a word that indicates a class of beings or objects each of which can be referred to by a specific noun, e.g. a cours d'eau [watercourse] (rivière, fleuve, etc. [different sizes of rivers]) or a personne [person] (man or woman).
The word refers to two separate concepts:
  1. a noun's grammatical category (feminine or masculine);
  2. a person's "sexe social"Footnote 3 [social gender], as opposed to his/her biological gender.

3. Background

Language "is what carries and structures thought"Footnote 4 [translation]. In 1899, Hubertine Auclert underscored the importance of language as a tool for the emancipation of womenFootnote 5.

We all learned in school that, in French, "the masculine overrides the feminine". This is the Vaugelas ruleFootnote 6, which considered the masculine as the nobler of the two genders; a rule that continues to distort the social representation of the gendersFootnote 7because it makes women invisible or downgrades them. Thus, internationally, it is still "droits de l'homme" [rights of man] that is the expression used to talk about the rights of men and women. The adjective commonly agrees with the masculine when one of the nouns it refers to is masculine (e.g. you write une mère, un fils et une fille futés [a clever mother, son and daughter, where "clever" takes the masculine in French])Footnote 8. The feminine is also associated with lowliness (e.g. you say le grand amour [great love] [masc.], but amours enfantines [puppy love] [fem.])Footnote 9.

However, it was not always this way. Under the feudal system, women held an important place in the public landscape, which was reflected in the language. It was full of feminines (like emperière [female emperor], lieutenande [female lieutenant], médecine [female doctor] and bourelle [female executioner])Footnote 10, which fell into disuse after the passing of the Napoleonic codeFootnote 11 which legally subjugated a wife to her husband.

Objecting that feminization is contrary to the spirit of the language is therefore to deny this rich past and, especially, to dismiss a fundamental feature of living languages, namely that they are [translation] "inexorably evolving"Footnote 12. Women tend [translation] "to not feel involved, to see themselves ignored"Footnote 13when a text does not acknowledge their presence.

It can be said that lexical feminization is now part of our moral standards. Simply glance at the job ads on Publiservice, on Emploi-Québec and other sites to see that the job titles are masculine and feminine everywhere. About thirty years ago, the Canadian Classification and Dictionary of Occupations was feminizedFootnote 14. When the Prime Minister of Canada addresses the public, he commonly uses the doublet "les Canadiens et les Canadiennes" [masculine and feminine forms of "Canadians"]. However, to properly refer to both genders in writing, you have to go even further: it is necessary to express the presence of women throughout the text, and that is the goal of gender-inclusive writing.

A number of institutions have gender-inclusive writing policies or guidesFootnote 15. In 1995, the Government of Canada, in its Federal Plan for Gender EqualityFootnote 16 committed to "adopter une terminologie uniforme sensibilisée au sexisme dans toute l'administration fédérale"Footnote 17 The Government Communications Policy of 1996 went even further by requiring federal institutions to "pursue fair communications practices by avoiding sexual stereotyping in their communications, by ensuring representative depiction of all members of Canadian society"Footnote 18. The writing guide published by the Translation Bureau that same yearFootnote 19 suggested several techniques for feminizing texts, stressing the optional nature of feminisation.

However, text feminization cannot be optional, given the goal of gender equality that the Government of Canada has set for itself. There cannot be equality without visibility; in other words, we must ensure that both genders are represented equitably in our writing and can identify themselves.

By ensuring that both genders are visible, gender-inclusive writing contributes to gender-based analysisFootnote 20, which the government first undertook to implement in 1995Footnote 21,and for which it renewed its commitment in 2009Footnote 22,

4. Objective

The purpose of this document is to promote the use of writing processes ensuring that women have fair visibility in all of Status of Women Canada's materials written in French and, by doing so, fostering gender equality.

5. Guiding Principle

All of Status of Women Canada's internal and external documents are written in a way that equitably depicts women and men by giving precedence to the former. To do so, any individual who writes for the organization applies the set of gender-inclusive writing processes available (see the Guide to Gender-Inclusive Writing at Status of Women Canada), by being attentive to both the type of text and the target audience, without sacrificing readability.

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