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Meeting 2. A common ground: gendered and inclusive language

In the second online meeting, we (Annalisa and I) presented some notions around the topic of inclusive and gendered language. While we are very enthusiastic about this topic, which for us is a scholarly interest but also a concern as activists, we were slightly worried that we would get resistance. Resistance on inclusive and gendered language is something we are used to. We anticipated some of this in a slide, listing the most common comments that we have heard over the years. Before we provide the list of what type of resistance inclusive and gendered language face, I will (on the behalf of Annalisa too) briefly introduce what we mean by inclusive and gendered. I start from this last, as it comes earlier in the history of the efforts devoted in replacing the masculine generic. For us, gendered language is the symmetric use of feminine forms for women, and masculine forms for men, in both singular and plural forms. Italian is a grammatical gender language, where language is visible in morphemes added at the end of the word (this is very simply put!), but not only! Its gendered system is a very complex one (as in many languages) as gender can be visible in lexical items (madre/mother, padre/father) and in satellite elements (as Sabatini would call them) for terms which have the same form for women and men (e.g. la cantante.fem, il cantante.masc, singer). We did start with an overview of this complexity, as a way to pre-empty resistance. We also explained why using feminine forms is important in terms of our history: women have been discriminated for centuries all over the world and, certainly, in Italian history. When I was writing my book, I did explore such history reading about our most problematic past, that of Fascism. One quote from Mussolini in an interview struck my attention and we decided it could string the same cords; in this interview, he explained that he couldn’t allow women to vote as the nation would laugh at him, suggesting women could never be architects because they are not able to think of a project. We were right! This is such a horrible way of describing women: teachers asked if they could have the slide with the quote to bring in their classes!! Sexist language is often commented on social media, but sometimes, because of the brevity of the message we forget to mention that history is at the core of language discrimination between women and men. It is only through this lens that we can really see what’s going on and how it can be fixed.  

For inclusive language, we aim to expand the discrimination and recognize that a binary language is excluding people who do not identify in this binary or prefer not to describe themselves through binary language. In Italian, the debate mainly happens on social media, there have been no academic publications to date that have contextualised the phenomenon in the wide field of queer linguistics (but both Anna Lisa and I are working on it!). This is not to say that the debate is not valid: on the contrary, we believe that the circulation of ideas around topics such this one is essential. Similarly, listening to voices who are constantly discriminated against is something very valuable.  Inclusive language means to replace gender morphological units with symbols, e.g., instead of saying ragazza (girl) or ragazzo (boy) one can replace the a or the o with the schwa symbol, or the asterisk, or the u, i.e. ragazz3, ragazz*, ragazzu.  One – gendered language – is not opposite to the other – inclusive language. They are complementary as they give speakers the chance to reflect on the context, the interlocutors, the purpose of the communication.  

In explaining this, we also offered some solutions (see meeting 1!) which were accepted by the audience. It was easier to talk about gendered language than inclusive language. One interesting comment concerned speakers not being ready to make the change between gendered language and inclusive language. They were on board with nominating women with the feminine form, but they also show resistance in replacing “traditional” gendered morphemes with the new ones. While both Anna Lisa and I are allied to the LGBTQIA+ community, we also recognized that personal timing is something to be taken into account. The exposition to some topics varies from person to person and from groups to groups.

We are confident that allowing that time to grow, knowing how to stop using language that contributes to institutionalised discrimination, can change the mindset. 

Meeting 1 – Presenting the project and getting to know each other


Meeting 1 was successful, in that my collaborator, Annalisa* and I met 40 members of staff at the school in Magenta, via google meet. We had prepared, using Mentimeter, some questions that would help us to contextualize our work:

  • were the teachers from the same school (level)?
  • did the like the materials used in class?
  • Had they thought about how these materials were representing identity aspects?
  • Was there something that they wanted to change?

From the very beginning, we understood that the focus had to be on how teachers were interacting with the texts they were given or had chosen. We know that it is never only the texts but also how teachers can engage with them and how students are guided to engage with them. Social media posts recurrently present sexist and misogynistic examples of texts in Italian school books, and we have seen occurrences of that. Annalisa, for instance, teaches Italian and is actively attempting to problematize the materials with the students, starting from the language but also deconstructing images. It did happen to me too! When I was teaching Italian in a language school in Manchester, I noticed that one unit (introducing the subjunctive) presented a sexist event. In brief, a guy sitting on a train  saw a woman looking for a seat and, feeling attracted to her, he checked where she was going to sit so that he could sit there too!

In going through two power point presentations (one to introduce the project and the other presenting the main themes, i.e. educazione interculturale/intercultural education, educazione di genere/gendered education, educazione inclusiva/inclusive education), the school staff seemed to have enjoyed the first meeting. One recurring aspect in events such this one is the interest of those attending into how they should behave. It is not the first time that I/we get asked about what’s the best course of action in specific situations. Teachers and more broadly people, seem to be interested in a manual that could help them to navigate a newer society. More specifically, they want to know how to answer some questions posed by students. It seemed that students, who are possibly embracing a(n arguably) freer society, seem to ask for validation by their teachers; questions were very relevant to our gender expertise: can male students use nail polish or wear skirts? 

While there are some indications/directions that we are always happy to share, our main aim is to raise awareness on some topics and let people feel they can be in charge of fostering equality and inclusiveness. I felt this is quite an important aspect and even so as we move ahead in this project. We do not want to impose our ideas, we want to share the knowledge we have acquired in studying themes and topics related to gender, race, inclusivity and equality. This also fits into a wider aim of our project. We do not want to have a top-down approach but we wish to keep a dynamic where trust is built and maintained among people who hold the same job. i.e. educating people.


* Anna Lisa Somma obtained her PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Birmingham (UK) in early 2021. She is an academic, a tutor of Italian language as well as a teachers trainer in gender/inclusive education. In 2020, she co-edited a book on sexism in the Italian language (“Il sessismo nella lingua italiana. Trent’anni dopo Alma Sabatini”). Her interests include the history of women; gender, feminist and queer studies; Italian literature from to Middle Ages to the contemporary era; Italian linguistics.

A new collaboration

Welcome to this blog!

You will be able to find information of a upcoming project with a school in Italy, the Instituto Comprensivo via Papa Giovanni Paolo II, in Magenta (Milan).

The project aims to open a discussion on inclusive practices in school. The 10 meetings will take place during the a.y. 2021/2022; the teaching body will participate in interactive meetings which are focusing on gender in all taught subjects (literature, language/s, history, geography, etc..)

This project is funded by the university’s Knowledge Exchange Fund, Partnership/Networking Fund (PNF). I thank my School for providing fund to visit the school and to be assisted by Dr Somma.

Stay tuned!