May 26, 2021
With an announcement coming at the same time as France announced its decision to ban gender-neutral terms in schools due to them being “harmful and confusing to the children,” Google is doubling down on inclusivity by presenting its new feature that encourages the use of gender-neutral terms while writing on Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
The feature was announced by Google’s General Manager and Vice President of Google Workspace—Javier Soltero—during Google’s I/O Developer conference in Mountain, California on May 18. It is a part of the tech giant’s new Smart Canvas tool that aims to facilitate more efficient use of Google Workspace (which made it on our list of top workflow management software).
The Smart Canvas features, including the new assistive writing feature, are expected to be available for Google users by the end of the year.
Inclusivity Goes Past Gender Neutrality
Some examples of what the feature would offer as suggestions include the replacement of words such as “chairman” and “fireman” with “chairperson” and “firefighter,” or replacing “man-hours” with “person-hours” to promote gender-neutral language.
However, the new feature won’t stop only at gender neutrality—it aims to give suggestions for an overall more inclusive language by providing alternatives for “offensive” terms. For example, instead of writing “It cripples the service,” the new feature would suggest, “It slows down the service.” The definition for what exactly is considered “offensive language” still hasn’t been clearly stated by Google.
Some believe that this is Google’s form of damage control for its multiple scandals related to its problematic (biased, offensive, or sexist) autocomplete algorithms over the years. According to recent Google statistics, the company controls 90% of the global search engine market, making it particularly responsible for ensuring that no such issues occur.
Most recently, Google Translate was accused of promoting discriminatory sexist language when it translated Finnish (a gender-neutral language) phrases into stereotypically gendered English phrases, some examples being “He drives a car.” vs. “She washes the laundry.”
Will This Become a Common Practice?
Google isn’t pioneering the inclusive movement in the tech world—it has been around for a while. With examples such as Air Canada greeting its passengers with “Hello, everyone!” rather than the previous “Hello, ladies and gentlemen!” and Apple introducing software updates that accommodate people with disabilities, it’s clear that inclusivity efforts are becoming more widespread.
Inclusive language is also becoming featured in some of the top grammar checker apps. One of the most popular apps of this type—Grammarly—points out potentially offensive language and reclaimed terms. ProWritingAid also added a new inclusive language feature in November 2020.
Future tech is set to be accepting of various beliefs, races, abilities, and gender identities, and Google’s latest feature is a testament to that movement.