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Concourse 2

Gender

gender

This guide is about language, primarily, not about cultural issues or issues of gender equality and political and economic power.
It is, however, difficult to disentangle all the issues and much of this guide is unavoidably concerned with cultural, individual and social issues.  So, before we begin, let's get one term straight.


define

Defining gender

The sixth edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary (1976) defines gender as

a grammatical classification ... of objects roughly corresponding to the two sexes and sexlessness.

Fowler, for long the go-to, final authority on English usage, stated quite firmly:

gender, n., is a grammatical term only.  To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.
(Fowler, 1965:221)

Later dictionaries are a little more daring so, for example, The Cambridge International Dictionary of English (1995) defines the term thus:

the physical and/or social condition of being male or female, or (specialised) the grammatical divisions of masculine, feminine or neuter into which nouns, adjectives etc. are divided in some languages

Twenty-five years later, the term is now defined in two ways as:

  1. either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.  The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.
  2. (in languages such as Latin, French, and German) each of the classes (typically masculine, feminine, common, neuter) of nouns and pronouns distinguished by the different inflections which they have and which they require in words syntactically associated with them.
    (Google, 2020, definitions supplied by Oxford Languages)

The upshot of all this change and confusion, which can mostly be traced to the 1970s and 1980s, is that there are now three definitions of gender in common use:

  1. gender as a grammatical category in some languages
  2. gender to mean sex or sexual orientation
  3. gender as a social role

Here, we are mostly concerned with the first of these definitions but, because the term is so loosely and carelessly used, it will not be possible to maintain a strict approach.  Nor shall we try.


earth

Genderless and gendered languages

Simplifying things rather too much, there are three types of languages:

  1. Genderless languages
    Some languages are truly genderless, having no categories at all to denote gender so there are no distinctions between nouns and none between pronouns, either.  Such languages may have nouns which are gender specific, such as sister, brother, aunt, uncle etc. but that's where it stops.
    Fully genderless languages include: Armenian, most Austronesian languages (such as the Polynesian languages, Malay and Indonesian and Malagasy), Bengali, Burmese, Chinese languages, Dravidian languages of South India, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Persian (Farsi), Thai, Turkic languages and Vietnamese.
  2. Natural gender languages
    Natural gender languages are genderless in the sense that they have no marking on nouns or adjectives etc. for gender but may have gender-marked pronouns such as she, he, they (feminine), they (masculine) and so on.
    Natural gender languages include:
    Afrikaans (but not Dutch), English, Swedish and Tamil (which is also considered genderless) and a range of others.
  3. Gendered languages
    These languages differentiate between at least two and often three genders, usually masculine, feminine and neuter.
    Languages with two genders (masculine and feminine or common and neuter) include: Arabic (most varieties), Danish, Dutch, French, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Kurdish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog and Urdu.
    Languages which used to have a three-gender system (masculine–feminine–neuter) including Danish and Swedish, for example, have lost the distinctions between masculine and feminine and they have merged in what is called a common gender.  So, nouns denoting people are usually of common gender (as in English) but other nouns may be of either gender.
    Languages which differentiate between three genders, as English does but only in the singular pronoun system, include: Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, German, Greek, Icelandic, Macedonian, Marathi, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Telugu, Ukrainian and Yiddish.
    However, the Slavic languages in this list recognise also the distinction between animate and inanimate entities.
    A bewildering range of genders are present in the grammars of other languages including separate categories for animals, countable nouns, inanimate nouns, uncountable nouns, abstract nouns, fluids, edibility vs. inedibility and so on.  Swahili has 18 noun classes and some languages have even more.

As a general rule, Indo-European languages which have a gender system base the categories on sex but African languages and others in North and South America have a gender system based on other characteristics, notably animate vs. inanimate but there are many others.


mark

Markedness

Some features of a language are simple and prototypical so they are referred to as unmarked forms but others are distinguished or marked in some way.  For example, we do not usually suggest that house is the singular of houses but rather that houses is the plural of house.  The plural form is marked (in this case by the '-s' suffix) but the singular is unmarked.  That is the normal way plurals are formed in English.
In other words, markedness refers to the distinguishing form rather than the base form of a word in a language.  So, for example, the verb in:
    Mary came to the house
is marked (by the mutation of the first vowel from 'o' to 'a' to show the tense) but in:
    I will arrive
the verb arrive is unmarked for tense or person.  The whole clause is, however, marked to show future reference with the auxiliary verb, will.
In:
    She took the money
we also have a marked form of the verb (took, not the base form take).  We also have a marked form of the noun, money, with the definite article, signalling that the hearer is aware of which money is in question.  The clause as a whole is not marked because, in English, we have the canonical word order of Subject-Verb-Object and that is what is apparent in this example.  On the other hand, we can mark the syntax and say:
    Did she take the money?
in which case the clause is marked as a question.
By the same token, the unmarked form of the adjective is used to ask a question such as:
    How old is she?
because the marked form is the antonym, young, and we do not usually ask
    How young is she?
unless we have a pre-formed idea about her age.  Even obviously young entities retain the unmarked form so we ask:
    How old is the puppy?
A good deal more can be found in the guide to markedness, linked below.

nouns

Nouns

Overwhelmingly, any language which distinguishes between masculine and feminine forms of nouns will do so by adding marking to make the feminine form and assuming the unmarked form is masculine.  The simple way to determine this is to check the dictionary entries for nouns.  Lexicographers of gendered languages will use the masculine version of the noun as the headword and usually note the female endings separately, or in brackets.
Even in those languages which have three genders, one being neuter, lexicographers will follow this format and dictionaries will usually present the masculine form of, say, an article or adjective, and note the distinctions for feminine and neuter in brackets.

Plurals, too, are a sign of this so, for example in Spanish, a group of 100 friends which contains a single male representative will be referred to using the male plural ending (amigos, not amigas).  In French, too, my father's friends will be translated as les amis de mon père with the masculine plural ending on the word ami, not the feminine plural amies.  Italian will do the same, using amici, not amiche unless it is quite clear from the context that ALL the friends are female.  Greek, another gendered language with three genders, will also make the plural of friends as φίλοι (feelee), the masculine plural, not φίλες (feeles), the feminine plural, when it is clear that the group contains male as well as female people.

Genderless or natural gender languages, retain some elements of a gendered noun system so the languages have separate lexemes for male and female relations and some titles, roles or professions.  This, too, is variable with some languages distinguishing male from female cousins and some, such as English, making no distinction.  It is also true that even internally, most languages are inconsistent so English distinguishes between a host (male) and a hostess (female) but does not distinguish between guests in the same way (there is no word guestess) and while it can distinguish a poet from a poetess, it cannot distinguish the sex of a painter, violinist, composer, teacher or writer.  It can also, but very rarely does, distinguish between maestro as a male honorific title and maestra.
Animals are notoriously inconsistently treated: English, French, Spanish, Chinese and many other languages can distinguish between lion (male) ands lioness (female) but many languages, including Bengali, Nepali, Basque, Hausa and Irish do not make a distinction.  Those that do distinguish predictably mark the male form in some way (often by affixation) to signal the female.
There are, of course, exceptions but they are exceptions and they are rare.  English, for example, marks the male form when distinguishing between bride and bridegroom and between widow and widower.  It is also true that, in English, the words goose and duck are unmarked for gender but gander and drake are marked male forms.

Some nouns in English have unrelated structural terms for male and female representatives of people so, e.g., English has king and queen, brother and sister, monk and nun.  But, in Spanish, for example, all the words are related to each other very obviously and the language has only three base lexemes with just the endings changed to denote sex.  In Spanish, the words are: rey, reina, hermano, hermana, monje and monja, respectively.
German notes the female by an ending on king (König-in) but has unrelated terms for the others and so on across languages with Malay having six distinct lexemes like English and others varying in how the words are structurally related, if at all.

The technical term for gender-neutral words is, incidentally, epicene so words such as teacher, sibling, cousin, parent, engineer, driver, gardener, player, hotelier etc. may apply equally to male and female people (or, indeed, to any other sexual identity) in English.  Languages which are more heavily marked for gender may have male and female versions of all of those and fewer epicene words.

pencil

Adjectives and articles

a broken pencil
ein gebrochener Bleistift
un lapiz roto
un crayon cassé
 

In most gendered languages, it is compulsory to make the adjective and article forms agree with the noun which governs them so, too, we find the dictionary entries for adjectives in the masculine form and the feminine form denoted, usually in brackets, after it.  Even online translating programs will follow this convention (although some are beginning to offer the alternative feminine versions of adjectives).
The examples above show the system in English, German, Spanish and French.  In the latter three cases, the adjectives are marked to show the gender of the noun and the article, too, takes a gender-specific form, masculine in this case because the word for pencil happens to be masculine in all three languages.  Change the noun for a noun of a different gender, say, cup, which happens to be feminine in all these languages, and we have to change both the article and the adjective form to get:
    eine gebrochene Tasse
    una taza rota
    une tasse cassée

Not so in English, as we know, because it is a natural gender language so we still have:
    a broken cup
and no changes are made to the article or adjective.

Within gendered languages, too, there are distinctions so, for example, Romance and Slavic languages generally insist on agreement between the noun and the adjective in all circumstances whereas Germanic languages only make the adjective agree when it is used attributively (i.e., immediately before or after the noun with no linking verb such as be, seem, grow etc.).
These examples would be very different if we venture beyond the three carefully chosen example languages here because the gender of inanimate nouns is random and arbitrary.  In Czech, for example, which, like German, has three genders, the word for pencil happens to be feminine and the word for cup is masculine so you need to make different changes to the adjective (but you would be relieved of the need to change an article: Czech doesn't use them).  In Greek, it happens that both words are masculine so no changes would be required.
Nouns for groups of people are variably gendered across languages, so, for example, the German and Greek words for group happen to be feminine (die Gruppe, η ομάδα [ee omada]) and they require a feminine pronoun to represent them, even though all the members of the group may be male.  In those languages:
    The group of men has arrived and it/they have settled in
would translate literally as:
    The group of men has arrived and she has settled in

pronoun

Pronouns

Gendered languages usually have well-developed pronoun systems whereas genderless languages will not vary the pronouns at all and most natural gendered languages such as English will note gender in the pronoun system only but inconsistently.
English, for example, can distinguish between he, she and it but has no way to mark gender with they at all.  The language does, however, have a singular unmarked third-person pronoun in one but its use is somewhat limited and formal.
Gendered languages may do things differently and French, for example, distinguishes between they feminine and they masculine: elles (feminine) vs. ils (masculine) and so does Italian with esse (feminine) and essi (masculine). and Spanish with ellas (feminine) and ellos (masculine).
However, within and between gendered languages, the systems vary.  German is an example of a gendered language (three genders) in which the word for they is not marked for gender but the pronoun for you takes three distinct forms marked for number and formality but not for gender.

English does not mark the relative pronoun who for gender or number but some language do.  Oddly, otherwise quite heavily marked languages such as French and Spanish do not mark gender on relative pronouns but German, because of its habit of using the definite article as the relative pronoun, makes a distinction so, for example:
    She's the woman who sold me the shirt
translates as:
    Sie ist die Frau, die mir das Hemd verkauft hat
but
    He's the man who sold me the shirt
translates as
    Er ist der Mann, der mir das Hemd verkauft hat

Many languages do not mark the second-person pronouns for you for gender but some, such as Spanish, Hindi and the Afro-asiatic family which includes Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Berber, and Hausa do.  In these languages, the sex of the person one is addressing affects the pronoun use but when addressing a mixed group, again, the masculine form is conventionally used.
Spanish is also an example of a language which marks the gender on the plural first person, we (nosotros vs. nosotras), making it one of the most heavily gender marked of the Indo-European family.  In some languages, such as Vietnamese and some Chinese dialects, forms of the pronoun we may be marked to signal whether it includes you or not so there is a difference between:
    We (including you) are going out
and
    We (not including you) are going out
with a different form of the pronoun for we in each case.
Even so, however, the pronoun will not be marked for gender.
The English pronoun, we, on the other hand may or may not include the addressee and may even include people not present (i.e., they).
Italian, another Romance language, doesn't take things quite so far but, in common with many European languages, marks the pronoun you for politeness and number.

action

Verbs

Nouns, adjectives and pronouns do not complete the list and in some languages, verbs, too, are gender marked.  In Russian, for example, past-tense forms agree with the gender of the subject so,
    He ate
translates as
    Он ел
but
    She ate
is
    Она съела
Czech, Polish and most other Slavic languages show parallel distinctions.
In Hindi, the form of the verb will always depend on the sex of the speaker so, for example:
    I eat
may translate as
    khaata hoon
if the speaker is male but is
    khaati hoon
if the speaker is female.
Equally, the verb form will change to distinguish between
    The boy eats
and
    The girl eats
In other languages, more radical changes are observable and in languages with as many as 10 genders, the situation becomes deeply complex.


girl and boy

Language and sexism

What sex is the child on the right?  

The term gender is, as we saw at the outset, also used to refer to sex and social role but the problems arise when the meanings are seen as synonymous with the term used to refer to how languages classify the world.  The meanings are not, it bears repeating, the same.

grammar

Grammar

Accusations of sexist use of language are not uncommon and are often based on the assumption that people's selection of grammatical structures reflects the way they think so, for example, to state:
    When a student enters the college he will be given his personal timetable
is considered unduly to assume that all students are male.  In fact, until quite recently (i.e., the last 30 or so years), the use of he, him, his as unmarked pronouns and determiners for all people was conventional as it remains in many gendered languages as we saw above.  For example:

The discourse analyst, with his 'ordinary language' data, is committed to quite a different view of the rule-governed aspects of a language.  Indeed, he may wish to discuss ...
(Brown and Yule, 1983:22)

To suggest that those who used the pronoun he and the determiner his as an unmarked form were assuming that no discourse analyst could be female is patently unreasonable especially considering that Brown's first name is Gillian.  It is a fair bet that were that passage to be written today, it would not have been phrased quite like that.
Another commonly used source, published a year earlier (Seaton, 1982) uses he, his, him throughout as the unmarked form to refer to both learners and teachers but it is doubtful whether the author had not at least considered the possibility that some of the teachers and learners he has encountered are female.  Here, for example, is Seaton's introduction (op cit.:98) to a discussion of learning theory:

... the child who learns his mother tongue is at the same time discovering the possibilities of his own organs and exploring his environment  ... It is obvious that for him hearing must precede speaking.  It is equally obvious that he is dependent on what he hears as he has not yet learned to read and write.

Nowadays, however, people will usually take one of six routes to avoid accusatory fingers:

The second of these alternatives is not, incidentally, a new invention or a grammatically challenged form.  The use of they, them, their, theirs as unmarked singular pronouns and determiners has been in common use in English for at least 400 years.  At times, for example, in:
    Whoever said that doesn't know their facts
it is almost unavoidable.
The selection of less obviously gendered functional words is determined, however, not by changes in the language but by changes in the people who use the language.

people

Lexis: gender for people

The use of gender-marked lexis is also something that most writers are at pains to avoid although the alternatives sometimes lead to clumsy expression and the impression that the language user is trying rather too hard.  Some non-marked expressions are, however, quite natural and easy to use and many are instances of simply dropping the suffix.  Examples are:

Marked forms vs. Unmarked forms
actor, actress actor
author, authoress author
businessman, businesswoman business person
caveman, cave woman cave dweller
chairman, chairwoman chair, chairperson
congressman, congresswoman congressional representative
fireman, fire woman fire fighter
headmaster, headmistress school principal / head teacher
housewife, house husband homemaker
juryman, jurywoman jury member
layman, laywoman lay person
mankind humans / people
male midwife, midwife midwife
male nurse, nurse nurse
policeman, policewoman police officer
postman, post woman mail carrier
priest, priestess priest
salesman, saleswoman salesperson / sales representative
steward, stewardess flight attendant / steward
usher, usherette usher
weatherman, weather woman weather forecaster

Others are less easy so many would not accept, for example, yachtsperson, middleperson, infantryperson and lots more although we can avoid huntsperson and work person by an easy substitution with hunter and worker.
When nouns are compounded like this, it is often difficult to find acceptable alternatives so alderman, bogeyman, clergyman, draughtsman, dustman, everyman, freeman, frogman, hangman, hit-man, landsman, manmade, manpower, manslaughter, ombudsman, quarryman, showman, snowman, taxman, watchman along with many others remain without clear alternatives.
The European Parliament has issued (2018) a list of terms recommended for both sexes in this regard including many of those in the table above, although the advice is unhelpful when it comes to fisherman / fishermen because, as the author notes, 'fisher' and 'fisherfolk' are not widely accepted.  The Oxford English Dictionary, incidentally, labels fisher as an archaic term but it is increasingly seen in academia.  It is also noted that no gender-neutral term has been successfully proposed for waiter / waitress.  It seems server might suffice as a useful importation from North American usage.
Fortunately, as we saw above, English is replete with epicene words which need no adjustment.  Some languages are not so fortunate.
Other languages, already heavily gender marked such as German and Spanish are, in fact, proceeding in the opposite direction by adding suffixes to names for people which previously only existed in the male form so, for example, European citizens are now described in official documents in German as Europäische Bürger und Bürgerinnen and in Spanish as Ciudadanas europeas y Ciudadanos europeos which are wordier and clumsier, many maintain, than the previous formulations.

It was pointed out above that the use of masculine pronouns for all persons does not necessarily betoken the fact that a speaker/writer assumes that everyone is male or that males are superior beings.  The use of the masculine forms of pronouns in this way is (was) common to both male and female users of the language.  What matters now is that many will assume that such uses do mean that the language user is a prejudiced dinosaur.  Why should this be?

cart

The direction of causality and assumptions about language and thought

Within the genre of popular science there is an uneasy mix of assumptions about language and thought.  For example:

How we speak affects how we think and how we interpret the world around us. So, as we are working to reimagine our defaults around gender and build a more socially-conscious and inclusive culture, we also need to reckon with language.

The languages we speak influence how we construct society, and can even set the precedent for gender equality in our social systems.

and

Language reform is possible, but it takes time. This doesn’t necessarily mean dismantling existing systems, but rather making space for more inclusive options. Instead of allowing language to construct how we view the world, we could push in the other direction, questioning how we can reflect our world through our choice of language.

all citations from Dutta (2020) but even a casual web search will reveal many parallel texts.

There are three principles at work here, it seems:

  1. Citation 1. implies that our first languages somehow determine our thought processes, how we think and how we interpret the world.  The direction of causality is:
        language form → mental constructs
  2. Citation 2. suggests that cultural factors are determined by the language a culture uses, The languages we speak influence how we construct society, and can even set the precedent for gender equality, so the direction of causality is:
        language form → social relationships
  3. Citation three contains two implications:
    1. that how we think determines how we use language (how we can reflect our world through our choice of language) so the direction of causality is now:
          mental constructs → language form
      because
    2. we can change how people think by changing how we use language (i.e., reforming its structural and lexical features to conform to our notions of equality and inclusiveness) Instead of allowing language to construct how we view the world, we could push in the other direction) so the direction of causality is:
          new language forms → better and more inclusive thought processes

None of these suggestions is unarguable, of course.
Two of them are internally contradictory taken alone because we can't have it both ways.  Either we start from the hypothesis that our thought processes (what Pinker (2007:82) and others have called mentalese) determine our language use or that our native languages determine how we are able to think.  The latter assumption underlies attempts to ban what is seen as sexist language use and replace it with genderless or differently gendered forms in order to change how people think: psycho-social engineering via language reform.
Elsewhere on this site, linked below, there is a guide to theories of language and thought so we won't rehearse all the arguments here.  What we can say is that, although the jury is still out, the current trend among many professional linguists, philosophers and neurolinguists is towards rejecting the view that thought is determined by language.  Pinker puts it this way:

there is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers' ways of thinking.
(Pinker, 2007:57)

Here's another citation along the same lines:

In March 2020, an open letter called on the Oxford Dictionary of English to update its entry for the word ‘woman’. The dictionary, which is used in many mobile phones, offers words such as ‘bitch’, ‘bird’, ‘wench’, ‘petticoat’, ‘bint’, ‘mare’, ‘biddy’ and ‘filly’ as alternatives to ‘woman’. Under examples of how ‘woman’ could be used in a sentence, it includes the phrase: “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman.”
The letter explained: “Synonyms and examples such as these when offered without context reinforce negative stereotypes about women and centre men. That’s dangerous because language has real world implications. It shapes perceptions and influences the way women are treated.”
(Bedi & Cameron, undated)

The assertion here is plain: language ... shapes perceptions, not the other way around.
There is, it bears repeating, no consensus among professional linguists but many would dismiss that assertion as arrant nonsense.

The rejection of the masculine pronouns for unmarked use has been called pronoun envy and has been rejected on the grounds that, as we saw above, gender is a grammatical, not a social or personal, phenomenon.  Here's another citation:

The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English (or that the feminine is unmarked in the language of the Tunica Indians) is simply a feature of grammar. It is unlikely to be an impediment to any change in the patterns of the sexual division of labor toward which our society may wish to evolve. There is really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking such changes.
(Anon, in The Harvard Crimson, 1971)

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, The last known native speaker of Tunica, Sesostrie Youchigant, died in 1948.

orwell

Newspeak?

the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought

The idea of Newspeak is one of George Orwell's abiding legacies.  It is an example of the fact that the assumption that reforming the language can reform the way people think is not a new idea.
In the novel, Chapter 5, a lexicographer working on a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary explains that in order to make seditious and treasonable thoughts impossible, the language will be reformed to make the thoughts impossible to express and, by implication, literally unthinkable.
You will not be alone in noticing a certain irony in the fact that those who champion equal rights and many other freedoms are also in the forefront of efforts to expunge what are seen as gender-biased language items, by legislation if necessary.
If it is true that we can impose changes to how people think by legislation concerning the language they are allowed to use, then we have a serious ethical issue on our hands.  Fortunately, it probably isn't.

Modern organisations do not go quite as far as Big Brother's lexicographers but there is a consistent and noticeable trend towards imposing language reform from above.  For example:

Over the last three decades, supranational organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Union have become aware of social inequalities between women and men. One of the aspects these organisations have highlighted is that of language and its sociocultural repercussions. These organisations have noted that the systematic use of gender-neutral terminology and wording is an important factor in the attainment of equality between women and men. As a result, they have taken steps to promote the elimination and avoidance of sexist language.
(Teso, E, 2010:3, emphasis added)

The European Parliament puts it this way:

Using gender-fair and inclusive language also helps reduce gender stereotyping, promotes social change and contributes to achieving gender equality.
(European Parliament 2018)

and that is an assumption for which no evidence at all is provided.

Many, clinging to the presumption that how our language is formed determines how we think, reason that it follows that we can, by reforming the language, reform the thinking of individuals and that will lead to a reformed, more equal and more inclusive society.  Some efforts have been made in this direction, as we shall see.  The corollary is, of course, that the way a person expresses himself/herself, themselves/themself betrays his/her/their prejudices.
The evidence seems, however, to show that more equitable modes of thought have already led to significant changes in pronoun use in English, hence the rejection of he, his, him as unmarked pronouns and the consistent attempts by writers in all fields to use plurals or the plural third-person pronouns and determiners to signal a singular gender-unmarked form.
It is also shown by the falling use of gender-marked nouns such as actress, manageress, policeman/woman, cameraman/woman and so on although the process is very slow and only recently detectable in Google Ngram Viewer.
Both these phenomena are, it seems, indicative of a direction of causality from thought patterns to language choices, not the other way around.

problem

Problems with language reform

Nouns belong to an open class and the introduction of new ones such as chairperson, spokesperson and so on is a comparatively simple matter which surprises and offends few people.  Pronouns, on the other hand, are a closed-system class of words and the introduction of new ones is a more difficult undertaking.  The loss of forms is a frequent matter, however, and English has already dispensed with the pronouns and determiners thou, thee, thy, thine in favour of you, your, yours as well as endings and mutations to pronouns to signal cases.

Alternative pronouns for he, she, it; him, her, it; hers, his, its; herself, himself, itself have often been suggested with the best known being the so-called Spivak pronouns of which there are at least three variants.  Like this:

Instead of currently we could have for example
subject pronoun he, she, it e, ai, ey or em E likes chocolate
object pronoun him, her, it e, em or aer I like aer
reflexive pronoun himself, herself, itself eeself, emself or aerself E talked to emself
possessive pronoun his, hers, its ees, ems, aers or eirs That is aers
possessive determiner his, her, its es, aer or ees That is aer dog

There is, of course, a reason why these are probably unfamiliar to you – almost nobody uses them.
Other, simpler systems have been proposed such as the use of hizzer instead of the marked his, hers, her and so on.  None of those has caught on, either.
There is some evidence that the use of themself as an alternative to himself and herself (but not itself) is gaining some traction but that is the result of people consciously or unconsciously avoiding gender marking, not the result of the deliberate introduction of a new pronoun.
An issue here is that the third-person pronouns are more closely to do with internal text referencing than first- or second-person pronouns which are involved with deixis (to which there is a guide, linked below).  For example in:
    The driver stopped and she walked over to me
it is clear that the speaker wishes to make clear what sex the driver was and to remove that reference makes the language less precise and less effective.  This usual anaphoric use of the pronoun system could not be accommodated in a language that did not gender mark pronouns.
(The only innovation in regard to marking which has been successful is the introduction of Ms to replace both Miss and Mrs which is now ubiquitous in most English-speaking cultures but that is, of course still gender marked.  No alternative form of address usable with both men and women has been introduced and one still hears Ladies and Gentlemen as often as colleagues, people, y'all and so on.  The use of fellow workers has been recently disparaged in favour of co-workers because of the association of fellow with men.)


gender

Gendered languages, thought and social relationships

Here we need to bear an important distinction in mind between sexist use of language and gendered language use.
The former implies language used deliberately or unconsciously to demean or negatively characterise usually female people.  The latter is an academic description of a language in use and carries no implication of a deliberate or unconsciously prejudiced approach to other people.  People can be sexist or racist and so can a few words but a language cannot be prejudiced any more than a language can be religious, politically right wing or socialist.  Confusing or conflating language use and language leads to a certain amount of trouble.

Advocates of linguistic engineering are sometimes tempted to suggest that gendered languages lead to gender-unequal societies.  In other words, gendered languages are sexist languages or, at least, embed sexism in conventional speech.
What's the evidence?
There is some from studies which suggest that speakers of languages with two genders only, masculine and feminine, do, in fact, think about things differently depending on whether the object is feminine or masculine.  Borodsky, Schmidt and Phillips (probably 2003), having asserted in the first sentence that:

Speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly.

go on to suggest that one of the ways in which first-language learners of a language, i.e., children, acquire a gendered noun system is to focus on what they call the masculine or feminine properties of the object so, for example, they will:

focus on some property of that noun's referent that may pick it out as masculine or feminine. For example, if the word for "sun" is masculine in one's language, one might try to remember this by conceiving of the sun in terms of what are perceived as stereotypically masculine properties like powerful and threatening. If the word for "sun" is feminine, on the other hand, one might focus on its warming and nourishing qualities.
(Op cit.:65)

This may prove efficacious if one accepts such stereotypical properties as being universals but it is less obvious how, for example, one attaches feminine properties to a microbe (as in German) or masculine properties to a table (also German) or feminine properties to the same piece of furniture (as in French and Spanish).  The word for a stone happens to be feminine in Spanish and French but masculine in German and Czech and it is unclear how children learning any of those as a first language will be able to assign feminine or masculine characteristics to the word however imaginative we know them to be.
In Russian, as the same writers point out, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday are masculine and Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are feminine.  In Greek, all days of the week are feminine except Saturday so there appears to be no systematic assignment of gender to objects by the characteristics they exhibit (whatever those presumed characteristics are).
In fact, across languages the assignment of gender to inanimate objects is fundamentally random (or based on, for example, affixation where all diminutives are neuter or whatever).
There is no obvious reason why the moon should be feminine in French, masculine in German and neuter in Russian.
There is also some evidence that languages which have only two genders (masculine and feminine) influence their speakers more in assigning certain characteristics to feminine and masculine nouns than languages with three genders including neuter.
These investigators sound a useful cautionary note:

Evidence collected from such subjective judgments cannot reveal whether gender is actually part of a person's conceptual representation of an object, or whether (left with no other criterion for making the subjective judgment) the person just explicitly decided to use grammatical gender in answering the experimenter's questions.
(Ibid: 67)

A different tack is taken by Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell and Laakso (2011) who set out to investigate whether nations with gendered main languages showed differences from those with genderless or natural gender main languages in terms of how equal the societies are in treating people of different sexes.
They surveyed 111 languages (73 gendered, 12 natural gender, and 26 genderless) and took as their measure of (in)equality the 2009 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (the GGG report).  The mean score on that scale is .68 and the higher the score, the greater the level of sex equality in the society.
The results from the table they present are somewhat mixed with, for example, Chile, China, Colombia, Honduras, Hungary, Thailand, Ukraine and Croatia all scoring .69 (i.e., just above average) although China, Hungary and Thailand have genderless languages with the other nations having predominantly gendered languages.  It is the case that the four highest scoring (i.e., most equal) nations were Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, all of which have a natural-gender main languages.  Of the genderless language countries, 10 scored less than the mean and 16 at or above the mean.  None scored higher than the four natural gender languages.
In addition to the general index, the report looked at other measures of (in)equality concerning economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.
The figures presented (p281) show that on all five of these measures, gendered language nations score lower in three cases out of five than natural gender language nations and in four out of five cases when compared to genderless-language nations.  Only in terms of health and survival was no difference in equality observed.
The evidence is patchy and sometimes controversial because social parameters such as equality are notoriously difficult to measure.
The writers nevertheless concluded:

it appears that countries that speak gendered languages evidence less gender equality than countries that speak natural gender or genderless languages–especially in terms of gender differences in economic participation—even when other factors that could influence variations in gender equality (e.g., religious tradition, system of government) are taken into account ...
and
countries that speak natural gender languages may be even more apt to exhibit gender equality—especially in the form of women’s greater access to political empowerment—than in countries where gendered or genderless languages are spoken.
(p278)

These writers finish with the heavily hedged comment that:

Moreover, although language may very well play a role in gender equality and language reform could be a fruitful avenue for improving the status of women, it is important to remember that linguistic modification must be accompanied by social and political adjustments in order to truly change existing asymmetries in gender.
(p281)

Which leaves us back where we started with an assumption that language can be reformed in order to reform social relations, not vice versa, although there is an admission here that it needs to go hand-in-hand with social and political adjustments.

Lest we jump to a conclusion in this respect, it is worth noting that, for example, Chinese, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Turkish and Thai are all genderless languages but the nations in which these languages are overwhelmingly spoken exhibit very different levels of social equality between men and women, ranging from .58 to .83 on the general GGG report index.  If we look at the political empowerment figures, the differences are even starker, ranging from .02 to .57 across these 8 genderless-language nations.
It is also the case, as we saw above that gender concerns more than masculine or feminine divisions, especially in, for example, Bantu languages in which there may be as many as 10 genders, none of which concerns sex.

ajar

Pushing at an open door

Notwithstanding the objections made here to the idea that language reform can precede changes in thought patterns and that these then feed into reforming society to make it more equitable, it does seem to be the case that once more equitable and enlightened ways of thinking become more widespread, the door is opened (or at least pushed ajar) for a reformed use of the language to become the accepted convention.  What this implies is that people should wait until social customs and attitudes have changed enough before trying to introduce language changes to match the new norms.
Many public and private organisations already have gender-neutral language policies in place but these, it should be emphasised, usually get imposed after new social constructs and attitudes have become embedded.  They are the result, not the cause, of changes in attitudes.
It is certainly the case, for example, that the singular, unmarked use of the pronouns they, them and theirs and the possessive determiner their is gaining widespread acceptance.  It is now quite clear to nearly all users of the language that using he to subsume reference to she is not acceptable and will grate on many readers and listeners.
It is a comparatively straightforward change to make in English, of course, because only four words already in common use need to be reassigned and none needs to be reconfigured.
In other languages, where pronouns take different forms depending on case, number and gender, it is a more complicated procedure and removing the marking from languages which apply gender to all nouns is a significant step which, as yet, few are willing to take.
We saw above that many languages, including most Slavic ones, mark verbs for gender and removing that morphological phenomenon is a challenging task.
Peninsular Spanish is often held up as a clear example of the difficulties of reforming a language which is very heavily marked for gender.  Research by Lomotey (undated) showed that despite attempts to impose, from above, anti-sexist language rules, 93% of the examples investigated showed continuing use of sexist language.  The most obvious cases were of masculine plurals for groups including both males and females.  From that paper, for example:

Some of the words which appeared most frequently in the masculine generic form were ciudadanos 'citizens', españoles 'spaniards', empleados 'employees', amigos 'friends', padres 'parents', hijos 'children', funcionarios 'workers', hombre(s) 'mankind', jóvenes 'youth', lector 'reader' and políticos 'politicians'.
(Lomotey, n.d.:173)

Partly, Lomotey points out (p169) this is caused by the continuing opposition to language reform by, among others, The Spanish Royal Academy which is concerned to maintain the purity of the Spanish language.

There is clearly a long way to go and, while English is very weakly gender marked in comparison to many languages, it is still proving very difficult to introduce change.  The challenge for linguistic engineers in other languages is much greater.


teaching

In the classroom

It would do our learners a disservice to be too careful about what we teach and what language we suggest they use to avoid any accusations of sexist language and the use of gender-marked forms because our aim is, probably, to supply our learners with the language that native speakers naturally use.  Much of that is gender marked, some wisely and some unavoidably so.
Teaching the Spivak pronouns would, therefore, seem counterproductive however much we want to appear equitable and inclusive in our language use.
Fortunately, unlike Spanish and many other languages, English has quite low levels of gender marking, most of which can be avoided easily by rephrasing or using a single lexeme for both male and female entities and a single pronoun for male and female referents regardless of number and sex.
This does not mean, however, that we do not need to show some sensitivity to the ways people try to keep unnecessary and possibly biased gender marking out of their language use.  Choosing or designing materials which do not use, for example, terms such as spaceman, manageress, workman and so in in favour of those that use astronaut, manager and worker is a straightforward matter.  It is also straightforward to teach the use of they, them, theirs, their as singular pronouns and a possessive determiner, along with some notification that it may be frowned on in formal academic writing.

(Teaching themself as an unmarked singular reflexive pronoun may currently be a step too far because most authorities note that it is rare, disputed or not widely accepted (oed.com) or remains quite rare in published, edited text (merriam-webster.com).
It has been noted that themself was the normal form of the third person plural reflexive pronoun until about 1540.  It had disappeared by about 1570.  Later, themselves became the standard form.
The form may be re-emerging but an expression such as:
    The manager may consider themself an expert
will still not be widely welcomed in formal writing.)

It is also the case that students of the language who need it for more than informal chitchat will be well advised to avoid upsetting their socially or grammatically sensitive hearers and readers by selecting genderless items over gender-marked terms.
A little awareness raising through simple practice is called for.  For example:

Rephrase the sentences more acceptably as in the example.
The stewardess was rude to a passenger and he took his complaint to the management.  → The flight attendant was rude to the passenger who made a complaint to the management.
A doorman needs to be trained so that he knows how to be diplomatic rather than use violence against drunken youths.  
A scientist should be careful to check his facts.  
I expect he'll be seen by a nurse and she will refer him to a doctor.  I hope he can help.  
A security guard needs to be able to call a policeman if he needs assistance.  

That is easily done.



Related guides
types of languages for some considerations of how other factors such as word ordering and transitivity vary between languages
deixis for some considerations of how personal deixis is encoded in English
language and thought for a consideration of the conflicting theories about the direction of causality
markedness for more on how language items are marked for particular meanings, not only in the area of gender
learning style and culture for more on how cultural aspects may affect responses to learning environments and procedures


References:
Anon, 1971, Pronoun Envy, The Harvard Crimson, at https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1971/11/16/pronoun-envy-pto-the-editors-of/
Bedi, N & Cameron, D, n.d., Women and words: why language matters, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3TfnKKJtx6j9CLWHnPtBt0Q
Borodsky, L, Schmidt, LA and Phillips, W, probably 2003, Sex, Syntax, and Semantics Stanford University, available from https://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/Courses/l1562018/Readings/BoroditskyEtAl2003
Brown, G and Yule G, 1983, Discourse Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Dutta, N, 2020, Are Societies With Gendered Languages Really More Sexist?, BBC Website: https://www.bbc.com/news [06/10/2020]
European Parliament, 2018, Gender Neutral Language in the European Parliament, at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/151780/GNL_Guidelines_EN.pdf
Fowler, HW, 1965, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Google Ngram Viewer, searched for actress, manageress and policewoman October 2020.
Lomotey, BA, no date, On Sexism in Language and Language Change–The Case of Peninsular Spanish, at https://bop.unibe.ch/linguistik-online/article/view/1748/2968
Orwell, G, 1949, Nineteen-eighty four: a novel, London: Secker and Warburg
Pinker, S, 2007, The Language Instinct, New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Prewitt-Freilino, JL, Caswell, TA & Laakso, EK, 2011, The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender Equality in Countries with Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages, available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257663669
Proctor, P (Ed.), 1995, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge
Seaton, B, 1982, A handbook of English Language Teaching Terms and Practice, London: The Macmillan Press
Sykes, JB (Ed.), 1976, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Teso, E, 2010, A Comparative Study of Gender-based Linguistic Reform across Four European Countries, Doctoral Thesis, Liverpool John Moores University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at http://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/5952/1/515531.pdf
Wikipedia, Tunica people, available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunica_people#Tunica_language [accessed October 2020]