Avoiding Sexist Vocabulary in a Gendered Language
In Spanish, all nouns and adjectives are assigned a gender, also referred to as grammatical gender. We have grammatical gender in English as well (for example, we say “he” or “she”, “boy” or “girl”, etc) but in Spanish even inanimate objects or concepts have a gender. For example “el libro” (the book) is masculine and “la justicia” (justice) is feminine. There are also masculine and feminine versions of the same word – e.g. “el compañero” (male friend) and “la compañera” (female friend).
Grammatically, when you have a mixed group, the rule is to default to the masculine plural. So “los compañeros” can refer to only men or to a mixed group of men and women, while “las compañeras” would refer only to a group of women. There are many concerns about the sexism inherent in this grammatical rule. While I have heard of one woman who always uses the feminine for mixed groups because she insists we are all “personas” which is a feminine word, in mainstream writing and spoken language there are other ways to get around this problem.
There are a number of methods for remaining gender neutral in Spanish speaking and writing. While speaking, the most common method is to simply say both “compañeros y compañeras”. In writing, many people use a slash (“el/la compañero/a”) but these days there are also some symbols that are being used in place of the masculine “o”. These include the at-sign [@], ligature [æ], and the anarchist symbol [Ⓐ]. I prefer the at-sign so you will see me write “l@s compañer@s”. In researching for this post, I saw that there is a proposal to incorporate a lower-case at-sign so that it flows more easily within the words – I like that!
Note: The use of these symbols is not currently accepted in formal writing (so you will need to write things like “los compañeros y compañeras”) – but we’re working on it!