The issue of gender-neutral language reemerged recently in the form of a publicized incident involving a college student who was (mildly) penalized for the use of the term mankind in a paper she wrote for a class.
Why was the score on her assignment lowered by one point out of fifty? The course’s professor had explicitly admonished students to use gender-neutral language such as humankind in place of the gender-specific mankind in their papers. The student (a woman), to test the instructor’s conviction about the point, deliberately used mankind in the assignment and discovered that the professor was serious.
So, what’s the big deal? Mankind has been used to refer collectively to humans since the Middle Ages. (Humankind, by the way, is younger but also dates back hundreds of years.) Why is the term widely considered sexist and exclusive? For the same reason that writers are encouraged to refer to police officers, not policemen, and chairs, not chairmen, and servers, not waiters or waitresses (though chairperson is considered cumbersome, and it is inoffensive to use waiters for either gender, thanks to the fact that waiter, though originally a designation for what was at the time of its coinage an exclusively male occupation, is not masculine in form).
Many people, including numerous women, decry this supposedly politically correct linguistic reformation, which is based on the belief that terms that encourage one to engage with a concept with the assumption that it pertains primarily to males perpetuates a perception that women are second-class citizens. The backlash is not without merit, as proposed gender-neutral language can be absurd (as with waitperson or waitron, gender-neutral substitutions for waiter or waitress, or in regard to gender-neutral pronouns that, absurdly, have been coined in an attempt to replace the gender-specific pronoun he, when effective solutions already exist). But extending mankind with two letters, or even replacing the collective man with humanity, seems a reasonable accommodation to bend language to reflect an effort to achieve gender equality.
Many authorities agree. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, recommends humankind—and on a related topic writes, “The writer’s point of view matters less than the reader’s” (with the implication that, in addition, the writer should not presuppose the reader’s preference, but should as a default use inclusive language). The Modern Language Association supports gender-neutral language, and The Chicago Manual of Style advises it, too.
Three of the pillars of society—education, politics, and business—champion gender-neutral language, with justifications that are distinct yet universally applicable: In education, inclusiveness encourages a perception of the human race that doesn’t conjure an image of a man or men by default; in politics, it discourages discrimination in laws and policy; and in business, it welcomes all potential customers and clients. Gender-neutral language also accommodates those who reject a binary gender system, and regardless of one’s ideology about gender identity, gender fluidity is a scientifically validated concept.
This issue is ultimately one of style, and, as always in regard to style, if one self-publishes, one does so with the freedom to choose how one conducts oneself in writing, with the attendant consequences of assuming that responsibility. But writers who elect to submit content to publishing companies or to contribute to an employer’s or client’s publications must accept that most publishers will heed Garner’s admonition stated above.