Ensuring women’s presence in history, culture and life is recognised and acknowledged is not just a matter of being ‘politically correct’. To ignore or make invisible the contribution of 50% of the population by always using the ‘he’ pronoun (where there is no gender specified) is incredibly subjective, inaccurate and unfair and yet academics and translators have been doing if for centuries. Not so objective or rigorous as they might like to think. As an aspiring translator and student of Buddhist philosophical texts it has been an eye-opener to see how often a gender-neutral category has been translated with the male singular pronoun. It was particularly frustrating recently to attend a teaching where the male teacher referred to Buddhist practitioners and students continually with male pronouns and that the text he used did the same.
In fact, languages in which nouns are given male or female status are linked to gender inequality, according to a new study that compares languages and equality across the globe. And languages with no gender at all — where even “he” and “she” are represented by the same word — are associated with the most gender inequality, possibly because people automatically categorize gender-neutral references as male.
However, as David Marsh points out there is no need in English to make all gender-neutral references male because we can always use the word ‘they’ :
Most sexist and racist language arises from the presumption that everyone is male and white. If you can just remember that this is not, in fact, the case, it’s easy to avoid. Anyone can do it – if they try.