Gender and pronouns in copywriting
19th October 2021 | Posted in copywriting
How do we as copywriters deal with the whirlwind of debate about how to address gender in our work?
It’s clearly an issue that is taxing marketing minds in some quarters, judging by the sign-up forms I’ve encountered recently.
Take the one I filled in last week to access a webinar that had absolutely nothing to do with gender issues.
Amongst the standard questions were these two:
- What gender I would like to be known by? (with a long multiple choice list)
- Which pronoun I would prefer?
The first question has been around for a long time, although as far as I can see, it’s rarely relevant to the activity. As some potential customers would see it as intrusive, I don’t think it’s helpful. Is it just data gathering for data gathering’s sake? I thought we had grown out of that.
As for the second question, really what is its point? I can only imagine that the sales team at the other end of the form want to know the correct form to use while talking about me behind my back. (Actually pretty unlikely I know – but if not that, then what?)
Do pronouns matter?
I’m not saying that the use of gender and pronouns isn’t a serious issue in daily life.
Perhaps people in my aged cohort snort about the gender debate and still want to be known as the ‘he’ or ‘she’ that they’ve lived with for many years.
But different generations have different views, and my children have friends who prefer to be ‘they’ or even ‘it’. I struggle with that one. I don’t think I could ever bring myself to refer to a person as ‘it’. That seems just rude.
Copywriting as a force for good
Words do have a role to play in changing thinking.
When I started copywriting, my niche was IT, and practically everyone that worked there was male. Marketing materials reflected that. Images were of men in suits or shirtsleeves, and everyone was referred to as a ‘he’.
I like to think I was part of a movement to change that thinking. We started writing about ‘he/she’, though that didn’t last long because it did rather damage the flow. That became a generic ‘they’, which was an improvement. And then even better over time, we learned to write directly to our audience, so ‘they’ became ‘we’ and ‘you’.
That’s a practice that works today anyway, and the added bonus is that it helps to avoid controversy. That’s good, because we are unlikely to want to offend our readership. Our value is empathising and encouraging, not alienating.
Marketing writing tips
What’s my advice on copywriting for an audience who have made gender choices that you can’t know about?
- When you’re creating your personas (or whatever you call them in our business), aim for inclusiveness by considering a wide range of gender, or make your personas gender-less. I suggest my clients call their ideal audience by names such as Chris, Alex and Sam, and use stick people for illustration. That may seem a bit silly, but it means we’re not assuming anything about sex or gender, but are only interested in their interests, aspirations and challenges.
- Write directly to your audience. It’s good practice anyway, and it avoids the use of pronouns other than ‘you’ and ‘we’.
- If you’re asking for information, think about why you’re asking. Can you just not pose the questions about gender?
- Always bear your audience in mind. What matters to them? Are you tying yourself in knots trying to be all things to all people when you really don’t need to?