January 19, 2022

With the Build Back Better Plan in congressional limbo, the future of several government programs remains uncertain. One of the most sought-after and necessary programs within this bill is paid family leave. It’s a heavily covered news topic, both through reporting and opinion pieces.

However, the discourse surrounding paid family leave remains plagued by gendered and binary language.

Paid family leave discourse, both on the floor of Congress and beyond, posits that the program’s importance lies with the “mother,” sometimes including the “father.” This binary distinction, or the idea that a child comes from a mother —or a cis-woman — and has a father, directly ostracizes the LGBTQ+ community.

When reporters mirror this exclusion, the harm extends beyond their work. Gendered language enforces and upholds the discrimination of LGBTQ+ peoples and parents, in news, in the lawmaking process, and in the medical world. While this piece focuses on just a handful of articles, the issue is systemic. I could have chosen countless other examples, or else, written a more at-length account. This piece analyzes several gendered-language latent articles and provides alternative approaches, as well as the harms in not utilizing more inclusive language.

In November 2021, Today published an article on Katy Tur, an MSNBC correspondent who just had her second child. In it, Tur, a straight cis-woman, calls herself a “mother,” “mom,” and “parent,” referencing her husband several times. While this speaks directly to her experience, she does say more generally, “I got a lot more paid time off to figure it out than the majority of moms in this country,” and that “moms need support. If that support is coming from a partner, that partner should get equal time off.”

Her usage of “moms” implies that a birth-giver must always be a mother. After this distinction, Tur uses the term “partner,” a gender-neutral and inclusive term, one that she could have substituted throughout her dialogue.

Further, the reporting included several statistics that reference mothers and fathers. Though gender-neutral statistics are less readily available, a mention of a complementary LGBTQ+ statistic following or preceding it would have at least rendered a more all-encompassing account.

That month, The New York Times published an article about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, who is an outspoken advocate for paid family leave. The article’s title is: “Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, says paid family leave ‘is not just about the mom.’” This immediately positions the article about one identity, making it so that a non-cis parent might be deterred from even opening it. And while articles can be positioned toward a certain group of people, an article about paid family leave discourse ought to be aimed at each type of parent.

The article references “maternity leave” and that “‘it takes strong men, modern men, to really understand they benefit from (paid family leave) as well.’” The article summarizes an interview that took place between Meghan and another New York Times journalist. In that video, the interviewer does not prompt Meghan to expand on her viewpoints on paid family leave for LGBTQ+ parents and families; thus, the journalist who recounts the interview might have felt it unnecessary to research or expand upon in the article. Due to the ease and comfort of the status quo, it remains difficult to disrupt.

Also in November, The Washington Post published an article comparing paid family leave across nations. It begins promisingly, with several references to “parents” throughout the first few paragraphs. However, by including a statistic about paid family leave being a catalyst for more women participating in the workforce, followed by recovery of both “mothers” and “fathers,” the article loses what started out as inclusivity.

Gender-neutral language is certainly possible in paid family leave discourse and journalism. An article in The (Rochester, New York) Democrat & Chronicle references the “worker” or “employee,” as well as “parent” and “spouses,” including a mention of adoptive children.

Unfortunately, the article does use “mom” once, toward the end of the piece, in reference to a hypothetical scenario New York Gov. Kathy Hochul mentioned in a recent speech on the subject. However, the singular reference in this context shouldn’t and doesn’t entirely overshadow the more gender-neutral and inclusive language used throughout.

In fact, the legal document on paid family leave in New York — the focus of that article — uses “employee.” New York state’s paid family leave legislation is an inclusive take on the subject, as family members, domestic partners, and others close to the expectant parent(s) can take leave to assist, as well. This gender-neutral language — a common thread on federal sites as well as in the United States’ current family leave laws — should serve as an impulse to cover the topic in the same manner, in New York and beyond.

Gendered language is ingrained in us from our youth. Consequently, it can feel more natural to use gendered language in our reporting. The binary has existed for so long in family and pregnancy/birthing rhetoric that it takes conscious work to dismantle it, both in daily conversations and in journalism. However difficult it might be at first, the work remains necessary.

In an interview with HR Dive, nonbinary parent Mike Reynolds said that seeing the term “birthing parents” in company policies puts them “at ease,”  whereas the go-to “mom and dad” language creates an alternate, uncomfortable reaction. The latter language is exclusionary, making LGBTQ+ parents feel unwelcome or discriminated against, which might be reflective of other workplace practices and politics that leave them feeling discriminated against more widely.

Less than 50% of “employers (offer) LGBTQ-inclusive leave policies,” a study from Out and Equal found. It’s legal to fire an employee based on sexual orientation and gender identity in more than 25 states. To not dismantle the norm of gendered language in journalism is to work to perpetuate and safeguard that discrimination, even if that’s not the intention. Language matters. It alters the way we perceive the world; it showcases our values, and it has the power to advance social justice.

Using gender-neutral and nonspecific language in coverage of a story about paid family leave — or on any subject where it’s possible and relevant — can have wider benefits. The normalization of gender-neutral language has the potential to create safer, more welcoming, and less discriminatory medical practices for birthing persons and their families. It also has the potential to influence legislation and national discourse about LGBTQ+ families and parents in the workforce. At a base level, it allows a news organization’s readership to feel welcome in the digital or print space they’ve entered.

Affirmation can be euphoric for many LGBTQ+ people. Dismantling the status quo of gendered language is a helpful step toward increased affirmation, acceptance, and safety for the LGBTQ+ community.

This article was made possible thanks to the support of the Gill Foundation.

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Liana DeMasi (they/she) is a queer, Brooklyn-based writer. She’s written a poetry book titled, In Which She Takes Multiple Lovers, and is an MFA Fiction…
Liana DeMasi

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  • Writing and speaking clearly to your audience is Journalism 101. Vague references to gender, especially in subjects like paid family leave, will drive readers/viewers to competitors.