Inclusive language and gender-neutral language are usually discussed as a package; and while they ideally go hand-in-hand, they are not the same thing. Inclusive language acknowledges diversity. It doesn’t polarize, but appeals to all. Using inclusive language means understanding the history and original intent behind the words you use. For example, using “indigenous” creates a safe, respectful environment for indigenous peoples.
Neutral language indicates language that’s not directed toward a particular sex or social gender. For example, in English, there’s the term, “LatinX,” which is the gender-neutral way of discussing people who identify as Latin American.
When it comes to in-country copywriting, we sometimes have to make tough decisions between using inclusive language, remaining gender-neutral, and accurately conveying the original message. Something could be gender-neutral but not inclusive, and vice versa. And, the unfortunate reality is that inclusive and gender-neutral content is still content — it’s susceptible to changes and decisions based on SEO. AKA if the word choice comes down between inclusive and gender-neutral, the SEO-preferred option usually wins.
These decisions are especially difficult in certain romance languages, where words are assigned genders. In Brazilian Portuguese, the word “employee,” for example, is “funcionário” — the “o” at the end denotes that grammatically, it’s a male word. To make this word gender neutral would require changing its ending. In English, we’re sometimes able to do this with words like “LatinX” (mentioned above) because it is, technically, pronounceable (although still not easy for screen readers to pronounce). However, in Brazilian, “funcionárie” would be difficult to pronounce via a reader, for example. Automatically, you’re marginalizing a visually-impaired person, in favor of a gender-neutral word.
The reverse can also be true, due to cultural constraints. While many companies have started implementing “parental leaves” after having children, Brazilian law still only outlines rules for maternity leave. Although most companies make parental leave accessible for all, it’s still not written in law. Say you’re writing an article about this and want it to be inclusive — pretty difficult when the law itself excludes certain groups! For accuracy’s sake, you’ll likely need to stay true to the law. However, you could also boost inclusivity by adding a section on how other people (non-binary, trans etc.) might obtain the same benefits.
Inclusivity and neutrality are crucial to successful, considerate communication. However, factors like SEO can make word choice that much more complicated. While SEO doesn’t hold intrinsic value in the same way as neutrality and inclusivity, it can impact a client’s choices. Perhaps a non-neutral word is what will generate more SEO attention? Perhaps the inclusive phrasing changes the original intent of the content, and so the client opts to stick with an SEO-friendly version? These choices are difficult, and while they ultimately rest with the client, we do our best to mend the gaps.
Our Language Ownership Program pairs experienced inclusivity and neutrality reviewers with writers, and trains them to produce more inclusive, neutral content. The idea is that if everyone is trained in the nuances between inclusivity and neutrality, then the content’s quality will increase significantly. Awareness and proposed solutions make writers’ jobs easier, and help create more universal content. So, while remaining inclusive, neutral, and SEO-conscious is a lofty goal, training will limit how often inclusivity and neutrality fall to the wayside.