Is gender neutrality possible?

After reading this article on Sweden’s gender neutral pronoun ‘hen’ I will admit that I am torn on the idea of gender neutrality. I understand the desire to replace gender stereotypes in language, and in early children’s play to encourage gender equality and stop perpetuating a patriarchal system. And really the only way to affect change is to go to the beginning of the issue and make changes at the root (in children and in the language permeating society). I get it. However, I don’t know if the changes Sweden is attempting will succeed in washing out billions of years of gender stereotypical behaviour. Children may be encouraged to play gender neutral games, but when they go home at the end of the day, unless their fathers are cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry while their mothers are fixing the truck and watching sports, it is likely that gender stereotypes will prevail in society. The fact that the preschool teachers have to limit free play because it result in gender stereotypical play speaks to the fact that (at least for this generation of children) gender-specific activities are natural and accepted. [And besides as an early childhood educator, I feel a bit of a pang at the idea of forcing children to play in a way that I (as the authority figure) want them to and not letting them have free choice or free expression. There is a way to encourage non-gender-stereotypical play and have a positive environment for all genders without being oppressive.]
Girls can play with trucks

I think at the heart of the issue are some very big questions: What is gender? (answer found here?) Is gender an innate part of a person? Or is it constructed by society? It seems that Sweden is of the opinion that it is constructed by society, that if they make changes to the way their society reacts to gender, it will in essence change the definition of ‘male’ or ‘female’. But this is getting into some hot water. What about LGBT? If gender is constructed by society, are they essentially saying that people’s environments ’cause’  a person’s gender?… that environment impacts whether a person ‘becomes/is’ LGBT or not? I have always been encouraged to believe that an LGBT person is born with their gender identity… so the idea that environment leads to LGBT (although not entirely impossible) is a bit too conspiratorial to me.

The article raises the point that having ‘three’ genders in language would be too confusing for young minds  to understand. I don’t know a lot about language studies, but I do know that there are languages that have three genders as part of their regular vocabulary. In my first two years of university  I studied German, and as it turns out the language uses ‘den’, ‘der’ and ‘das’. Das being the neutral gender. For me this was extremely confusing, but I imagine that is because I am not a native German speaker. To the native German, using three genders would be second nature. My point being that the argument of adding a third gender being too confusing for the young generation learning Swedish is void, if consistently utilized, the third gender would very easily be adapted by the young language learners (it is likely that the issue of adapting to the change in language would actually occur among the older learners who have always used only two genders).

I don’t have issue with gender equality, in fact I do agree that much of our society is perpetuating a paternal hierarchy which in my opinion would be beneficial to change. However, I’m not entirely sold on the way that Sweden is going about this change. I have no  issues with the use of the gender neutral noun, but I do find fault with forcing children to play a certain way. Although it is true that radical change may need to occur for society to ever shift from being paternal, I don’t agree with that change being limiting or oppressive to the developing generation. In fact, it seems a bit ironic that in order to reach a society less oppressive to the non-male individuals, there must be oppression in other areas to meet those goals.

Where do you stand?


8 responses to “Is gender neutrality possible?

  • Angela Page

    Rather than asking whether gender neutrality is possible, shouldn’t we be asking whether it is desirable? I wonder whether we would be better to acknowledge, celebrate and model gender empowerment with our learners, rather than trying to eliminate it and potentially oppress diversity.

    • hchev

      Good point. : ) But what does gender empowerment look like? I just have never heard the issue spoke of in that way before, so as far as gender stereotypical roles… what does it mean to be gender empowered?

      • Cynthia Schultz

        – power within: This power refers to self confidence, self awareness and assertiveness. It relates to how can individuals can recognise through analysing their experience how power operates in their lives, and gain the confidence to act to influence and change this. ?? –

  • Jessica Brown

    I appreciate what you’re trying to say about LGBT issues, but I think that it is important to clarify that the prevailing argument that you mention is that LGBT persons are born with a particular sexuality, not with a certain gender, which are totally different concepts. A gay man can have a sexuality oriented toward other men, but identify with a traditionally female gender identity (or be sexually oriented to men but identify with a traditionally male gender identity, or something else altogether). Because gender is a socially constructed concept, nobody, including LGBT persons, can be born with it. Creating a gender neutral pronoun wouldn’t challenge the theory that LGBT persons are born the way they are, since sexuality is understood as a biological concept, but it would allow them greater freedom to express themselves as feminine, or masculine, or anything between or outside of those socially constructed concepts of gender.

    Also, as a writer, I totally agree with the supporters of the gender neutral pronoun in terms of what it means for language: he/she is just plain ugly.

    • hchev

      Thanks for clarifying on the LGBT point and the gender/sexuality definition Jes : ) I’ve never thought about gender and sexuality to this extent before and its way more confusing than I thought.

  • Cynthia Schultz

    I agree with Jessica – the term lesbian for example does not refer to gender or gender identity, it refers to a woman’s sexual orientation. Gender is a social and cultural construct and is different than one’s sex – the biological characteristics that makes a person a male or female. There is a clear distinction here and unfortunately many people in our society do not understand this.

    I do not agree with everything said in the article you shared, but I do feel that there needs to be gender neutrality and that there should not be such clear definitions of this is a boys’s toy or that is the role a girl should play.
    I believe that in classrooms, you should not refer to your students as boys and girls and that there are different word choices that can be used.

    In terms of the gender neutral pronoun “hen”, I support this, as not everyone defines them self based on their sex and their gender identity may not match their sex. Sweden is making a change and they are moving toward inclusion and the next step beyond equality. Like any change, it will take time and to change a society is hard. But why not start at schools and in the classrooms as what happens there goes home and can impact a family. I feel that even though the Western stereotyped roles will continue and may one day change completely to gender neutral, it is not doing any harm to start introducing the concept of gender neutrality with using the pronoun “hen” or encouraging students and teachers to use inclusive terms when talking about others.

    If you’re interested, this is a good article on “One teacher’s approach to preventing gender bullying in the classroom” – – which shares stories and some suggestions that we as teachers can implement into our classrooms if we are truly passionate and supportive of all of our students, no matter how they identify.

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