Civil servants working for the Federal Government have been given a guide on how to use gender-inclusive language in official communications, in a bid to promote Belgium's commitment to gender quality and women's rights.
From addressing citizens with 'sir/madam' to using gendered words to describe a profession, there are many ways that communications can be gender-exclusive, even when it is relatively easy to avoid making such mistakes. Civil servants working for the Federal Government are now being encouraged to avoid such practices, with the help of a guide specifically designed for this purpose.
"Language has a strong influence on how we see the world and how we think and act," the guide given to all civil servants states. "Inclusive writing aims to broaden our perceptions of the world and create equitable gender relations."
The guide is meant to encourage them to use different words "deal respectfully with gender, and in particular with the place of women and femininity in communication. This ensures that everyone recognises and feels involved."
Gendered words and stereotypes in professions
Unlike in English, French and Dutch words are often, either directly (based on the spelling of the word) or indirectly, gendered. Particularly when it comes to professions, using a certain noun can either exclude women or can make it seem like women do not have a place in a certain sector.
This can go from using both female and male forms of a word relating to a profession (agent/agente) to replace words with a more gender-neutral word (administrative assistant instead of secretary, which more often refers to women in the profession).
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The guide does not aim to impose this type of writing on civil servant, but instead aims to create basic principles that apply to documents sent out by the Federal Government.
Experts have already welcomed the move. "This guide seems to me an important first step," Sofie Verhalle, gender-awareness trainer at the Knowledge Centre for Gender and Feminism (RoSa vzw), told De Standaard. "Further steps will undoubtedly follow."
Other government organisations, such as the national railway operator SNCB, have already adopted such practices, by using "dear traveller" during its announcement instead of "dear ladies and gentlemen."