Planning commissions can strengthen inclusion with gender neutral policy language

Are people of all gender identities represented in your planning commission bylaws, policies, and other documents? Many organizations have taken steps to update policies and replace gendered language with gender neutral options.

Bylaws, charters, and policies are all documents that govern how a group or organization organizes itself and conducts its business. They often lay out roles and responsibilities as well as expectations of members. These documents are sometimes written in a way that may exclude some of the very people these organizations serve. Consider sentences like this:

The Chairman retains his ability to discuss, make motions and vote on issues before the Commission.

or

The Chair retains his or her ability to discuss, make motions and vote on issues before the Commission.

The first example sentence, outlining the role of the chairman, is assuming that the chair will always be someone who identifies as male. The second example is an improvement, but still assumes that the chair will identify as either male or female, seeming to leave out anyone who may have another gender identity and use other pronouns. What would that same sentence look like if all references to a specific gender were removed?

The Chair retains their ability to discuss, make motions and vote on issues before the Commission.

In that gender neutral version of the sentence the chair’s ability to participate in deliberations and voting is still clear, but any references to a particular gender have been removed. This change to gender neutral language can help remove unintended biases regarding what type of person is expected to be in that position. This more inclusive language can show that those roles or policies are designed to include a wide diversity of folks across all gender identities.

There are two common ways that gender bias appears in policy language. The first is by assuming the masculine or male gender identity. This is seen in the first example sentence and its use of chairman instead of ‘chair’ and the pronoun ‘he.’ The second is by reinforcing the male/female gender binary. The MSU LGBT Resource Center defines a gender binary as a “socially constructed gender system in which gender is classified into two distinct and opposite categories.” In the examples above the binary can be seen in the phrase “his or hers,” which seems to exclude anyone who has a gender identity outside the binary and may use different pronouns. This binary can also be seen in phrases like s/he, he/she, Mr./Ms., etc.

Having gender neutral language included in policy documents is a choice organizations can make to help folks of all gender identities feel included in the organization. Changing gendered nouns (chairman) to gender neutral version (chairperson or chair) and gendered pronouns (he/him/ his she/her/hers) to gender neutral (they) can go a long way toward increasing inclusion. Pronouns such as he or she can also be replaced with the noun they are standing in, for example: using “the student’s parent” instead of “his/her parent.” 

Why does this matter?

The example above may seem like the sort of wordsmithing that is common in policy documents, but the language used to refer to people in policy documents sets an expectation for who is expected to be part of that space. If all pronouns in a document are masculine (he/him/his), or if they reflect only a binary view of gender, it may limit full participation by non-male members of a community. The lack of representation and acknowledgement of all gender identities can range from milder consequences such as an unwelcome atmosphere, implicit bias, and a mistrust of government to more severe consequences like causing feelings of isolation, self-degradation and even suicide within non-included groups.

According to a survey conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA, 41% of trans or gender nonconforming people have attempted suicide (compared to 4.6% for the general population). That risk of suicide attempts was found to be lowered for trans or gender nonconforming people who had supportive social environments. Moving to policy language that is inclusive of all gender identities can help transgender and nonbinary individuals feel respected and included and be a part of a supportive social environment. Research has found that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having their gender identity respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their gender identity respected.

Examples of making the switch to gender neutral language

Many governmental bodies have started to intentionally make their policy documents more inclusive of all gender identities, including the U.S. House of Representatives. The Rules for the 117th Congress that were adopted in early 2021 included “changes to pronouns and familial relationships in the House to be gender neutral or removes references to gender, as appropriate, to ensure we are all inclusive of all Members, Delegates, Resident Commissioners and their families – including those who are nonbinary.”

In March of 2020, the electors of Battle Creek, Michigan voted to amend their city charter to have ungendered language. The charter had historically used he/him/his when referring to city officers, officials and employees according to a 2019 City Commission Resolution. The charter had included a notice that all instances of masculine pronouns should be read as also including female. The City of Battle Creek’s successful effort to remove gendered language from its charter was initiated by a 2018 Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee that was formed to recommend whether any charter amendments should be put to the voters. The Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee noticed the frequent male gendered language, and their first recommended (by unanimous vote) amendment to be put to voters was that the charter language be universally made ungendered.

MSU Extension is also engaging with this important work. The MSU Extension Land Use Series #1E: Bylaws for a Planning Commission was recently revised to recommend gender neutral language in planning commission documents. Previously this resource used a binary approach to gender and pronouns (example: “his or her”). The most recent revision updates the document to be inclusive of all gender identities. If your community is looking to establish or review its own planning commissions bylaws, this resource can be a great tool to use in that process.

How to get started

Incorporating gender inclusivity into your next review of bylaws or policies is one way to help people of all gender identities be recognized and valued in your community or organization. If regular reviews of policies and bylaws are not typical practice, a simple document pronoun review could be a great opportunity to establish that process.

Any time a new policy is introduced, or an existing policy reviewed, check for gender inclusivity and make any changes needed. This is the approach taken by Battle Creek after the March 2020 vote. As policies are reviewed or come before the planning commission, they will be revised to be gender neutral. This approach can help spread the cost (both financial and time cost) needed to review all policies over a longer period.

Continue to learn about gender identity and pronouns through places like MSU’s LGBT Resource Center, MyPronouns.org, and MSU’s Center for Gender in a Global Context.

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