List of access keys

8.2 Gender-neutral language

See 8.2 of the Checklist »

The importance of gender-neutral language

Gender-neutral language is important because it makes our writing accessible and relevant to everyone.

In the past, writing was considered gender-neutral when it did not use “masculine language” that excluded women (eg, chairman and policeman). We now consider this as an overly narrow concept of gender-neutrality and that language should move beyond binary concepts of gender to be inclusive.

Techniques

You can use a range of techniques to ensure that a document uses gender-neutral language.  

Technique Example
Leave out the pronoun.    cross.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign his office.
tick.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign from office.
cross.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than she would in Auckland.
tick.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than one in Auckland.
Repeat the noun.    cross.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign his office.
tick.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign the member's office.
cross.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than she would in Auckland.
tick.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than a penguin in Auckland.
Use “they” or “their” to describe singular persons (or use “it” for an animal). See more below on the singular “they”, and avoiding ambiguity.    cross.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign his office.
tick.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign their office.
cross.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than she would in Auckland.
tick.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than it would in Auckland.
Note: you may need to change a verb so that it agrees with the pronoun.  cross.gif The Registrar may give any direction she considers appropriate.
tick.gif The Registrar may give any direction they consider appropriate.
Recast the sentence into the plural.       cross.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign his office.
tick.gif Members of the Tribunal may resign their office.
cross.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than she would in Auckland.
tick.gif Penguins in Antarctica swim further than those in Auckland.
Convert the noun to a verb form. This is also consistent with using verbs rather than nouns (see 8.4 of the Checklist).  cross.gif The Commissioner may give his or her consent to ...
tick.gif The Commissioner may consent to …
Use a relative clause.    cross.gif Where a mortgagee exercises a power of sale, he or she must not ...
tick.gif A mortgagee who exercises a power to sell mortgaged property must not ...
cross.gif If a penguin swims in Auckland Harbour, he must watch out for jet skis.
tick.gif A penguin that swims in Auckland Harbour must watch out for jet skis.
Use a passive construction. However, see 6.2 of the Checklist, which encourages us to use the active voice.  cross.gif The Registrar must advise the applicant of his decision.
tick.gif The applicant must be advised of the Registrar’s decision.
Use the gender-free pronoun “you”.  cross.gif An applicant must submit his or her form on time.
tick.gif You must submit your form on time.
For titles, use a gender-neutral version.  cross.gif Chairman
tick.gif Examples: Chairperson, chair, president, presiding person, presiding officer, presiding member, convenor, co-ordinator, and moderator

Use masculine and feminine pronouns.

Use this technique sparingly. It is currently under review as it still uses gender-specific expressions and so is not gender-neutral as now understood.   

cross.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign his office.
tick.gif A member of the Tribunal may resign his or her office.
cross.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than she would in Auckland.
tick.gif A penguin in Antarctica swims further than he or she would in Auckland.
Avoid “his/her”, because this can confuse readers.    

The singular “they”

The pronouns “they” or “their” are used in a singular sense almost universally in everyday speech and have been adopted in writing since the 14th century. However, PCO has only recently started using this technique in legislation and in other documents.

If you are using this technique, be careful to avoid ambiguity. This is most likely if you refer to 2 or more persons—it is not immediately clear which person the “their” or “they” is referring to or if the “their” or “they” requires collective rather than individual action.

Example
cross.gif When the vendor notifies the purchasers of the amount of the rates, they must pay them immediately.
Does they refer to the vendor or to the purchasers? Does them refer to the vendor or to the rates?
tick.gif When the vendor notifies the purchasers of the amount of the rates, the purchasers must pay the rates immediately.

Some non-gender-neutral words to avoid

Word to avoidTry
mankind humanity / human beings / humans / people / the human race / humankind
man-made artificial / manufactured / constructed / fabricated / handmade / handcrafted
manpower workforce / staff / workers / employees / personnel / people
master [noun] employer / teacher / principal / captain (of ship/harbour) / registrar / person in charge / person in control
man [verb—eg, man a shop] run / operate / manage /staff
workmanlike skillful / professional

Gender-neutral language in legislation

As part of ensuring that your draft legislation has the right legal effect, is inclusive, and communicates well, check that it uses gender-neutral language.

Matters to consider

  • Under section 16 of the Legislation Act 2019, words in legislation denoting a gender include every other gender. The purpose of section 16 is to ensure that legislation is not arbitrarily narrow in its application. In any event, our drafting practice is to avoid wording that, contrary to intent, applies to only a particular gender.

  • From a constitutional perspective, the law should treat all persons equally, regardless of their gender.

  • Legislation needs to communicate effectively to all those to whom it applies, including those who do not identify with any gender or identify as transgender.

  • Gender-neutral language has other legal benefits as it enables legislation to apply easily to both natural persons and other “legal persons” (eg, companies).

Amending legislation that uses gender-specific language

If you are amending legislation that uses gender-specific language, draft amendments using gender-neutral language in the same way as if you were starting from scratch.

However, if the legislation currently uses “he or she” throughout, generally don’t use “they” for the amendments unless you are also amending the existing specific pronoun references to make the legislation consistent.

Also, generally do not amend the existing gender-specific language throughout the legislation unless:

  • you can do it within the confines of the amendment that you are instructed to do

  • you can do it easily (eg, by amending 1 or 2 additional provisions)

  • you are expressly instructed to do so.

From time to time, possibly during the select committee stage, someone may suggest you make an Act gender-neutral while making substantive amendments to it. This can be very time consuming, particularly if the Act is large.

If the Act uses a term such as “salesman” throughout and time is not a critical factor, make the changes. However, if the amendments involve changing “he and she” to “they”, discuss it with your team manager first.

Also, if you are instructed to change a term to be gender-neutral, check that the new term is indeed desirable and has the same meaning as the original term. For example, it has been proposed during select committee stages that “landlord” be changed to “lessor” or “owner”, neither of which was ideal in the context.

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