Languages which assign a gender to nouns present special problems when it comes to recognizing the contribution of women in the workplace, and nowhere has this been more of an issue than in France.

But, in a move that took many people by surprise, the Académie Française, the nation’s language watchdog, has declared that there is “no obstacle in principle” to the feminization of traditionally male job titles.

The major policy switch came after the 36 current academicians – all but five of whom are male – approved by “an overwhelming majority” a report prepared by two female and two male members including the only British academician, poet and literary scholar Michael Edwards.

Having previously declared that “inclusive writing” was “an aberration” which puts the French language “in mortal danger”, the academicians, who are known as The Immortals, formally opened the door to “all developments in the language aimed at recognizing the place women have in society today”.

A spirit of openness

One of the report’s authors, novelist Dominique Bona, told Le Monde newspaper: “The Académie has shown a marvellous spirit of openness. It has shown it is sensitive to the fact that women are thinking about the definition of their jobs. It will now tolerate feminizations that have long been banned.”

Only two academicians voiced opposition to adopting the report and the ease with which it was endorsed has stunned observers of the Académie which has been a bastion of tradition since its foundation in 1634 under Louis XIII.

Members of the Académie Française gather for a meeting.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Its established view on job titles was neatly summed up by the current French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe when he said that the masculine form was actually neutral and should be applied to all job holders, regardless of their gender.

Pressure for change

The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report 2018 found it would take another 108 years to close the gender gap. Among the causes of slow progress to equality identified in the report is unconscious gender bias, which can be underpinned by language.

Pressure for change has been growing in France. A 2017 survey found that two-thirds of French women defined themselves as feminists. Of the 24 nations surveyed, France had the fifth highest percentage declaring support for equal opportunities for women.
Image: Statista

Bona has already exercised the new linguistic freedom, describing herself as an “écrivane”, feminizing the traditional male word for author by adding a final “e”. Adapting the feminine version of some other job titles should be similarly straightforward.

But others promise to be much more difficult. For example the word “présidente” does not traditionally refer to a female president but to the wife of the country’s leader. Recently the Académie clashed with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo when she insisted on being called “Madame la Maire”. The Immortals said “Madame le Maire” was the correct version.