A Gender-Neutral Approach to Market Research 

In recent years, gender has emerged as an issue that brands are paying more attention to. With the understanding of the gender spectrum and its fluidity changing, ensuring communications are as inclusive as possible has become a top priority in several sectors, including market research

Because they want to gather insight into oftentimes broad and diverse target markets, market researchers need to make sure they have an inclusive focus that doesn’t alienate key sectors of the consumer population. And this starts with language.  

What is gender-neutral language? 

Gender-neutral language is the term given to words that avoid bias towards any particular gender; for instance, examples of gendered pronouns in English include 'his', 'her', 'she' and 'he'.  

In some languages, much more of the lexicon is gendered. Take French, where nouns are either masculine or feminine, and spelt and pronounced differently to denote this. For example, 'un jumeau' is the word for a male twin, while the similar but feminine 'une jumelle' is used for a female twin, rather than there being one catch-all term like the English 'twin'. There are countless more such cases, across both Romance and Germanic languages. 

Even languages that aren’t gendered to this extent face challenges when it comes to finding appropriate gender-neutral alternatives. In English, 'they' is often used as a gender-neutral pronoun, with 'their' used instead of 'his' or 'hers' to denote possession. Some feel this can read slightly clumsily, but there are few other alternatives as well. One is the use of 'Mx' as a gender-neutral title, replacing the gendered 'Mr' or 'Miss'.  

How different cultures approach gender-neutral terms 

Different languages and cultures approach gender-neutral language in vastly different ways. 

Among Germanic languages, Swedish historically had three genders — masculine, feminine and neuter — but these have largely been erased over time. More recently, the personal pronoun 'hen' has begun to be used as a gender-neutral alternative to the masculine 'han' and feminine 'hon'. 

Hebrew is another language that uses masculine and feminine nouns and is now seeing a growing trend to add both masculine and feminine suffixes to words to signify gender neutrality. In Israel, campaigns for gender neutrality have led to laws being changed to ensure that all job adverts are worded in such a way that clearly and explicitly states that both male and female applicants are welcome.  

In many cases, it is the younger generation leading the change. For instance, in Argentina, some have begun to use 'e' as a gender-neutral alternative for ending words to the typically masculine 'o' or feminine 'a' of Spanish. Sometimes, replacing the gendered endings with '@' or 'x' is another option. With this still an emerging trend, it is likely to be some time before this passes into the general lexicon.  

The rise of gender-neutral market research 

Beyond the specifics of how the different languages express gender, brands want to reach and understand all potential consumers, across different markets and without alienating any sectors. So, when they set out to explore their target audience to develop the right products and services, they want to ensure they are connecting effectively with all of them.  

This means the different research methods, from surveys to focus groups, need to be carefully thought out from both a content and a linguistic perspective to ensure all participants are adequately represented and addressed.  

In multilingual projects, planning for gender-neutral research can pose several challenges. Gender-neutral strategies are specific to each language, and may be linked to a language variant or society in particular, so they may not translate easily into other tongues. This can add an extra layer of complexity to the translation and localisation process. 

Because of this, highlighting that having a gender-neutral focus is a top priority is essential in the early stages of any project, so all the necessary considerations are taken beforehand. Discussing in advance the overall tone of the language to be used and the possibility of employing more informal gender-neutral strategies, such as '@' or 'x', is a good idea to encourage consistency. And if machine translation (MT) is implemented, thoughtful and thorough post-editing by a human linguist is a must, as MT engines continue to struggle when it comes to removing gender bias. 

Likewise, early, in-depth research to understand how the relevant societies approach gender issues not only linguistically but also culturally is also crucial to creating questionnaires or surveys that connect with research participants successfully. 

Moreover, it is essential to work with native-to-market linguists who have first-hand knowledge of a specific society, extensive industry expertise, and an in-depth understanding of how language can be an effective tool to make market research more inclusive. 

At THG Fluently, we've been connecting market research agencies with expert linguists since 2003. In that time, we've learned what it takes to give brands the linguistic support they need to understand their target audiences. So, if you'd like to learn more about how we can support your business with our extensive portfolio of market research services, feel free to get in touch

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