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Should we Ban the Terms Mother and Father?

Language and the words we choose have an incredible impact on people’s lives. This is where the push for gender-neutral and gender-inclusive terms comes in: making all people feel seen, heard, and included. The Australia National University (ANU) has released a new gender-inclusive handbook on their website that’s ruffling some feathers. In particular, they are suggesting to ban the terms “mother” and “father,” and many people are quite upset about it. (1)

Australia National University Might Ban the Terms Mother and Father

In their new guidebook to help promote gender-inclusive language among staff and students, ANU suggests a ban on the terms “mother” and “father.” Instead, they prefer the terms “birthing parent” and “non-birthing parent” or “gestational parent” and “non-gestational parent.” (1)

“ While many students will identify as “mothers” or “fathers,” using these terms alone to describe parenthood excludes those who do not identify with gender-binaries.” they wrote in the handbook. (1)

Other terms recommended surrounding childbirth and parenthood include (1):

  • Breast/chestfeeding
  • Human/parent’s milk

These aren’t the only terms that ANU suggests changing to make the University more inclusive to everyone on campus. The handbook suggests discontinuing the use of male-centric terms such as “mankind” or “guys” when referring to a group of people. (1)

Using masculine generic language – such as “mankind” and “guys” – reinforces the legitimacy of the male student and excludes other gender identities,” the say. “Gender-inclusive language, however, can be a vehicle for reducing cognitive and behavioural male biases, combatting stereotypes, and increasing the visibility of gender diverse students.” (1)

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Why The Change?

In 2019, researcher Lauran Dinour looked at how the language used when referring to childbirth and parenting can have a detrimental impact on those who identify outside of the traditional “mother,” “father,” “man,” and “woman.” (2)

According to her research, the lack of proper terminology to include these people affects their level of care received and can negatively impact their health. (2)

“heterosexual and woman-focused lactation language … can misgender, isolate and harm transmasculine parents and non-heteronormative families.” she wrote in her study. (2)

The idea behind the change for ANU, just like that of the hospital in Sussex, UK, is to make their campus a more open and welcoming place for all. (1)

It is important to note, however, that the terms presented in the handbook are just suggestions, and that it is not an official policy of the ANU. (3)

“This is a guide produced by a research institute that, among its many areas of focus, examines how to improve gender equity and inclusiveness in our society,” a spokeswoman for ANU said in a statement. “This document is not an official ANU policy, process, or official prescription to staff and students.” (3)

Other Actions By the University

Several of the colleges at ANU are taking action to make their teaching more inclusive. This includes using they/them unless otherwise identified and providing unconscious bias training for all staff. They are also working towards a more inclusive curriculum, addressing sexism and misogynistic issues among both students and staff, and working with indigenous scholars to “decolonize” academic work. (4)

Ban the terms mother and father? Not Everyone Is On-Board

As expected, the move has been met with some criticism. Associate professor of sociology Salvatore Balbones from the University of Sydney questions whether this kind of languaging will just cause confusion. (4)

“Most people don‘t know what parent’s milk is and would question what it means,” he said. “If someone said parent’s milk, they might be looking for a brand of milk named parent’s milk.” (4)

Despite that, the University maintains that it is not an official policy. They simply want to encourage a more inclusive environment on their campus. (2)

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Sources

  1. GENDER-INCLUSIVE HANDBOOK.” Gender Institute.
  2. Speaking Out on “Breastfeeding” Terminology: Recommendations for Gender-Inclusive Language in Research and Reporting.” Pub Med. Lauren M Dinour. October 2019.
  3. University handbook encourages staff to adopt gender-neutral language.” NY Post. David Aaro. February 16, 2021
  4. ANU urges staff to say ‘chestfeeding’ instead of ‘breastfeeding’, ‘gestational parent’ instead of mother.” News. Frank Chung. February 16, 2021.
Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.