A document editing tool launched by computer giant Microsoft has been criticised for advising writers to type “assigned female at birth”, rather than “biologically female”.
Critics say it amounts to censorship of an individual’s writing and makes a mockery of language, flying in the face of the biological and linguistic meaning of the word “woman” or “female”.
It comes after The Telegraph reported that Google has also started telling users not to use particular words because they are not inclusive enough.
The online giant is rolling out an “inclusive language” function that prompts authors to avoid using certain words and suggests more acceptable replacements.
Microsoft Word has introduced a similar tool, prompting users of the editing function to avoid certain words. Users can opt in or out of the function.
As well as advising people to steer clear of the term “biologically female”, it urges them to change phrases such as Postman Pat to “Postal Worker Pat”, as the former “may imply gender bias”.
It also recommends amending Mrs to Ms, including changing “Mrs Thatcher” to “Ms Thatcher”. In addition, it proposes that users change the word “mankind” in Neil Armstrong’s famous phrase “one giant leap for mankind” to “humankind” or “humanity”.
‘Their suggestions don’t help them’
Critics have objected in particular to the biological definition of a woman being flagged as potentially offensive.
Helen Staniland, a software developer and feminist activist, told The Telegraph: “Microsoft appears to be trying to influence how people discuss social issues, but not really know or understand what they are suggesting.
“What do they mean by gender bias? Why are they suggesting that the perfectly descriptive phrase ‘biologically female’ might imply a gender bias? Why would they presume that ‘assigned female at birth’ might be better?
“It seems that they are trying to jump on the bandwagon of attempting to prevent discussion of ‘biological females’, but their suggestions don’t help them.
“If they wanted to include trans women in this cohort, then their suggestion should probably be ‘women’ – if you subscribe to the idea of trans women being women. ‘Assigned female at birth’ is simply another way – albeit in forced genderist language – to discuss the same group, unless they are attempting to suggest that trans men are neither biological females nor subject to male violence.
“In short, this part of their inclusiveness proofing is a mess.”
Social media users have also criticised the Microsoft Word tool’s gender bias warnings.
One, called Suze, said: “Sex in utero or birth is based on observable phenotypic traits, which are basically the clearly observable physical traits. It’s not assigned or designated.”
Erik Wedin, a blogger from Sweden, wrote on Twitter: “Assigned at birth? Hey @Microsoft have you lost your mind? You do know doctors don’t ‘assign’ sex at birth? They observe and record sex and normally long before birth.”
A Microsoft spokesman said: “Microsoft understands that not every Editor suggestion may be suitable for all users and all scenarios. That’s why we let users be in control of their final output.
“Editor is a completely optional tool that users can turn on or turn off at any point. Editor does not make any autocorrections, all suggestions are just that – suggestions for the user to consider – and the user has control over which suggestions they choose to use, if any.
“In Word, users will have control at the critique/suggestion level as they will be able to turn on and off each one of them individually.”
Among the words Google’s inclusive language tool objects to are “landlord”, which Google says “may not be inclusive to all readers” and should be changed to “property owner” or “proprietor”.
The tool also suggests more gender-inclusive phrasing, such as changing “policemen” to “police officers”, and replacing “housewife” with “stay-at-home-spouse”.
But it also objects to the technical term “motherboard”, a printed circuit board containing the principal components of a computer or other device.
If a writer uses these and other terms, a message pops up saying: “Inclusive warning. Some of these words may not be inclusive to all readers. Consider using different words.”
Lazar Radic, a Madrid-based senior scholar in economic policy at the International Centre for Law and Economics, said: “Misguided inclusivity suggestions may produce dense, unreadable tracts – and even damage the semantic integrity of a language.
“I see ‘inclusive warnings’ as an affront to the concept of human language itself – regardless of which language. Words are, by definition, exclusive in the sense that they serve to separate one thing – or rather, one category of things – from all others.
“That is their function, and their beauty. Should we merge all language into one inclusive word, so as not to exclude anyone or anything?”