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Gendered language and the law – Farewell sirs!

By: Gemma McLoughlin Burke

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(First published in Decisis Law Ireland in October 2020)

In their most recent effort to make the profession more inclusive, the Law Society have issued a statement informing members that the standard salutation “Dear Sirs” will be removed from future correspondence and have encouraged them to follow suit. In a statement from the President of the Law Society, Michelle O’Boyle, it was stated that this “exclusive and gendered” language was outdated and runs contrary to the Society’s gender equality, diversity and inclusion policy.

The use of the salutation “Dear Sirs” originated at a time when the legal, and business world, was made up entirely of men. Many companies would be styled in the name of two or three male partners and so, letters from one company to another would be addressed to those partners (hence 'Dear sirs'). Unfortunately, masculine language has stuck around and for many, it has come to be seen as impliedly including both men and women. A common example can be seen at a meeting of the Joint Committee in December 2019 where Hildegarde Naughton, a female Fine Gael TD, was captioned “Chairman”. (I’m sure no male TD has ever been mislabelled “Chairwoman”). Similarly, the law is riddled with male-dominated language and rules, such as the trusty old “reasonable man” who is portrayed as the unimpeachable standard of objectivity, or the “foreman” of a jury who can be male or female but must be referred to as "foreman". The question many ask is, why is this problematic? It's just language, right?

Gendered language is something that has been studied and analysed at great length, with the overall scientific consensus being that, though seemingly innocuous, the use of gendered language is harmful. (See the Oxford study by Menegatti & Rubini or Weatherall’s study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology). In fact, numerous studies have found higher levels of sexism in societies where gendered language is used. The general proposition posited is simple; continuously referring to lawyers, doctors, judges and engineers as him, and nurses, carers, teachers and secretaries as her, reinforces existing stereotypes as to which professions are ‘male’ and which are ‘female’.

A number of jurisdictions have considered the impact of gendered language in the law and have taken steps to remedy male-dominated language in the public sphere. In the last two decades, countries such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have officially launched policies committed to utilising gender-neutral language when drafting legislation and other government documents. The importance of gendered language and its effects have also previously been recognised by the Dáil. As far back as December 1993, the Dáil debated potential amendments to the Interpretation Act 1937 to remove gendered language and move towards more neutral terminology in legislation. Then Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mervyn Taylor, stated “We are all aware nowadays of the importance of terminology in shaping perceptions of particular groups. It is no longer acceptable to use language which is sexist or which reinforces sexual stereotypes.” During the course of this debate, the Government also made assurances that future legislation would be drafted in a gender-neutral fashion.

Insofar as “Dear Sirs” is concerned, the first waves of discontinued use came in 2016 when a number of Magic Circle firms in the UK announced a move away from the salutation in favour of simply using the firms name, “Dear Sir or Madam” or the name of the solicitor to whom the correspondence was addressed. There seem to be contrasting views that this change is either so inconsequential so as to make it virtually meaningless and that more needs to be done, or on the other side of the spectrum, that this change is pointless and unnecessary as there is no issue to begin with. To those of the view that it is not enough, it should be considered that the elimination of the “dear sirs” salutation may have a knock-on effect and encourage the legal profession to take a more gender-neutral approach to their language as a whole.

To those on the other side who say "why bother?", perhaps it is worth considering whether the salutation would be shaken off as being so entirely unimportant if all correspondence began with “Dear Mmes”. It is clear that the legal profession is still a very male dominated arena. As it stands, only 18% of senior counsel and around 30% of partners in law firms are female. It may not be the biggest challenge facing women's progression in the profession, but less gendered language is more inclusive language so the real question is, why not?

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