The field of branding and advertising is undergoing a powerful shift towards inclusive representation and moving away from a gender binary. From fashion designers and retailers using a beautiful array of designs to the rise of clothing brands that are “gender fluidcompanies are celebrating a wider range of human bodies and experiences than ever before. Similar signals of a cultural shift around gender assumptions are evident in other practices, such as including your preferred pronouns in email signatures or Zoom handles. This move towards greater representation and inclusion is important, but when a brand has intentionally centered around a highly gendered word (“mama”) and an activity associated with women (breastfeeding), it can be difficult to accept change.
As co-founder and CEO of Mamava – the creator of the category of self-contained lactation capsules used primarily for pumping on the go – I’ve thought a lot about gender and bias. The concept of Mamava was born when I was breastfeeding and traveling for work, and couldn’t find any sanitary or comfortable spaces to plug in a breast pump. (People who breastfeed without their baby need a private space to plug in a breast pump, undress, and express milk.) The design of everyday spaces is too often based on male, able-bodied users. As a breastfeeding woman, I have felt the effects of invisibility and the negative impacts of prejudice. I created Mamava to serve people whose physiological needs for breastfeeding or expression were simply not catered for in the built environments they inhabited.
As our business has grown, our customers, as well as our community of breastfeeding parents on social media, have asked for more inclusive language. Their feedback prompted us to reconsider the language we use on and about our products. Today, my team and I increasingly understand how the cultural male/female gender “norm” is based on a binary understanding that is not only limiting, but also erase a whole constellation of identities. As a result, people feel invisible, unsupported and unwelcome.
Recognizing the negative effects of invisible biases in the designed world directly informed my thinking about invisible biases in language, even in, or especially in, a breastfeeding business. Our intention has always been to provide the necessary infrastructure to make nursing mothers feel seen, supported and welcomed wherever they go. While many breastfeeding parents are women who identify as mothers, assuming that everything breastfeeding parents are women who identify as mothers has the unintended consequence of excluding from their bodies people who also feed their babies with breast milk, but who do not identify as women or mothers. By solving one invisible gender bias, we didn’t want to perpetuate another.
So, at Mamava, we made the decision to update our marketing, sales, and product copy with gender-neutral language to reflect more parents. This work has not been without difficult internal conversations during team meetings and staff meetings. Ultimately, it’s not about removing the word mum altogether, but about taking a ‘yes and’ approach so that all of our audiences feel seen and welcomed by the brand. Mamava remains our brand name, but we do not refer to pod users as “Mom” on signage in our pods. (For example, we changed “Looking good, Mama” to “Looking good” on our pod mirror, a simple but meaningful change.)
As a leader of a company trying to change the breastfeeding culture, I recognize that cultural change involves a complex process of unlearning and relearning. As companies and workplaces strive to be more inclusive, it is imperative to re-examine the language we use so that it is not just as usual. In the spirit of ongoing personal education, I offer the following principles that have guided our work.
The language is always evolving. Today we use Google as a verb. But it wasn’t a word until 1998. The history of the language is dynamic, and the words we use change to adapt to user needs. Instead of viewing language as carved in stone, we all have an active role to play in changing the words we use. (I wish my high school English teacher had taught me that!) For example, using “they” rather than a gendered pronoun (his/her) is not incorrect; it is direct evidence that the language changes to adapt to the moment.
Language shapes our way of thinking. It is easy to imagine language as a simple, linear process: words are expressed (whether spoken or written), words are received. But communication does not exist in a vacuum. The words we use are still shaped by our context, our audience, our purpose and our historical time. And we, in turn, are shaped by the language we have. Therefore, using inclusive language not only recognizes other ways of being human, but also expands how we think on human beings.
Language shapes the problems we solve. Many caregiving challenges, from paid time off to child care, are often framed as women’s issues. But the seemingly small shift to gender-neutral language from “parents” refocuses the question on the fact that our care economy is broken and this is a systemic problem that affects families. Moving away from gendered language and embracing inclusive language is a powerful way to reorient how we think about problems and how we work to solve them.
We have inherited a cultural and linguistic heritage that is patriarchal, white, hetero-normative, and grounded in binary gender. But the world we live in is – and always has been – much more diverse. From marketing copy to product descriptions to job postings, the more companies can include a wide range of human experiences, the more they can recognize and respond to a wider range of needs. As business leaders, we have an important role to play in supporting such progressive and positive social change.
Sascha Mayer is CEO and co-founder of Mamava. Mamava, based in Burlington, VT, is the leading lactation space design expert.