“Yes, language is a vector of sexism and discrimination”
EPFL’s upper management has adopted a series of guidelines on inclusive language, which will be launched at an online presentation on 7 October. In the meantime, you can view the guidelines on a special section of the EPFL website. Natasha Stegmann, the project manager who’s overseeing this broad initiative, spoke with us about what she hopes to achieve.
If you were to describe Stegmann, you might use words like hypersensitive, empathetic and non-conformist. Three words that, incidentally, are gender-neutral when written in French – they have neither a masculine nor feminine form. That means they also fit in well with the inclusive language initiative at EPFL, the launch of which Stegmann was hired to manage as a member of the School’s Equal Opportunities Office. She has been extremely busy getting things ready over the past few months: developing writing guides and posting them online, arranging the online launch event, overseeing the production of videos, giving workshops to targeted groups of people, and answering questions during her weekly office hours – all with the goal of using language to help shift mindsets. That’s not the only hat Stegmann wears, however. At 32, she’s also a committed volunteer and activist, driven by her uncommon upbringing that opened her eyes at a young age to gender, class and racial inequality.
“Why is it that when you ask people to name a female scientist, the only one they can think of is Marie Curie?” says Stegmann. “And can anyone name more than five female painters? The message I want to send is that inclusive language is not just about what pronoun to use – it’s an opportunity to make everyone sensitive to the fact that yes, language is a vector of sexism and discrimination.”
Inclusive language is a tool that can help restore gender balance and make people more aware of women’s roles and of injustice. And it’s a tool that can be implemented easily. Of course, you could argue that the way in which people write isn’t necessarily a top priority, but we have to start somewhere. Inclusive language is something every one of us can adopt easily, at no cost – it’s actually been around for 30 years!
Stegmann won’t be speaking at the online event on 7 October, although she’ll be busy organizing things behind the scenes. Rather, the speakers will be Dr. Pascal Gygax, a psycholinguist at the University of Fribourg who is working with Stegmann to promote inclusive language, and Prof. Gisou van der Goot, EPFL’s Vice President for Responsible Transformation. But Stegmann’s lively, musical voice is what you hear on the trailer for the launch event. She designed and produced it along with a handful of other videos that will be available on the inclusive language section of the EPFL website.
What impressed me about Natasha is her ability to juggle so many things at once, and with an extremely professional approach. Her out-of-the-box thinking gives rise to fresh ideas that can shake up what’s traditionally done at universities.
An oxymoron herself
Reserved yet incredibly stylish, highly active yet eternally calm: Stegmann is the embodiment of an oxymoron. She may be a militant feminist, but she enjoys dressing in a girly fashion style. She keeps her tattoos covered up but talks about them freely. She identifies as queer but doesn’t dwell on her sexual orientation. She’s also a resolute environmentalist, anti-speciesist and vegan – a philosophy that can sometimes be “inconvenient,” especially when she’s dining out and there’s nothing on the menu that she can eat. “In the winter, you’d better be a big fan of pumpkins!” she jokes. Along the same lines, she’s given up long-distance travel and is against airplanes and tourism, which she believes is a form of neocolonialism. However, she doesn’t hesitate to sport the Dior handbag she got from her mother. It’s vintage, so perfectly in line with her eccentric spirit.
The non-EPFL hats she wears include serving as president of Mille Sept Sans, a non-profit organization she founded in 2015. “I actually co-founded it,” she’s quick to point out. “That’s an important distinction, because you can’t launch an organization like that alone. It takes a collective effort and a lot of hard work from many people. There were around a dozen of us at first.” Today the organization, which is based in Fribourg – whose zip code, 1700, inspired the organization’s name – has nearly 100 members in several parts of Switzerland. It aims to combat street harassment, which is something Stegmann herself was a victim of on several occasions (well before the #MeToo movement) when she worked at bars to pay for her studies and often came home late at night.
The organization has chalked up a number of achievements in the six years since it was created. It put the issue of harassment onto the agenda of Fribourg’s Cantonal Parliament, for example, and developed the Aretha Code of Conduct to help prevent sexual harassment at parties and similar events – around 20 bars, festivals and event venues have signed up to the Code. Other Mille Sept Sans activities include workshops, prevention campaigns, awareness-building on the issue of consent and, coming soon, an award. As if that weren’t enough, Stegmann is also a DJ on her own time and will soon have her own radio show on Trnstn Radio.
Positive reinforcement rather than punishment
“I’m interested more in encouraging positive behaviors than punishing negative ones,” she says. “I want to offer concrete, tangible solutions for effecting change. The various activities I’m involved in have that practical approach, as does EPFL’s inclusive language initiative. Of course, there’s a scientific aspect to inclusive language that I had to learn about, to better understand how the use of masculine nouns and pronouns influences our brains. But then I was able to develop my own views. In these kinds of discussions – like those on anti-speciesism and anti-colonialism – there are always people who are simply argumentative, and trying to persuade them is just a waste of effort. I know I can’t change other people, so I’d rather focus on what I can do at my level,” she says.
An inner flame
When discussing feminism, Stegmann refers to her “inner flame.” She explains: “I was both lucky and unlucky enough to be raised by a single mother. We faced some difficult times financially after my parents got divorced. My mother worked for an import-export firm and had to put in long hours. That gave me a sense of responsibility early on, and showed me how hard it can be for a woman to have to handle everything on her own.” Stegmann’s mother – from Singapore but with a Chinese background, and a firm believer in Taoist philosophy – gave Stegmann a multicultural, spiritual upbringing. That’s one reason why today she’s so highly attuned to injustice and aware of the obstacles that racialized people can face.
“My eyes were opened to that at an early age, without having to read about it in books like a lot of people at universities. We lived in Schoenberg, a neighborhood in Fribourg that was on the wrong side of the tracks. Back then, the playgrounds were run down and everything was rusty. The goals on the soccer fields didn’t even have nets. But the area has gentrified since then, and rents have gotten more expensive.” When she runs into people from her old neighborhood, she knows they’re proud to see her working for EPFL, and she promises to never forget where she came from.
A winding yet deliberate road
Stegmann has always traced her own path – from the days when she waited impatiently for the smell of her mother’s perfume upon returning from a long day at work, or the summers when she and her sister were placed in the stewardship of air hostesses for the flight to Singapore to visit her family. Her path may not have been straight, but her choices were deliberate. It took her to the University of Neuchâtel where she studied ethnology and human geography before getting a Master’s degree in social science with a specialization in migration and citizenship. She then went on to complete internships at the ILO and WHO as part of Switzerland’s permanent mission to the United Nations.
Stegmann also worked at the Canton of Fribourg’s legal archives with a focus on children who had been placed in care homes; here she read through a number cases of childhood abuse and neglect. She also went through periods of unemployment between small jobs and various temporary assignments. “Nobody wanted to hire me!” she says.
Stegmann first came into contact with inclusive writing while working at a temp job for the University of Neuchâtel’s equal opportunity office in 2018 – a job she obtained through the unemployment office. Here she found a caring environment and had a revelation: “For the first time in my life, I felt listened to,” she says, with emotion in her voice. She also recalls the woman she viewed as her mentor: Morgane Wüthrich, the University of Neuchâtel’s gender equality officer. That’s also when she first met Dr. Gygax, who recently helped her develop the workshops that are now given to the EPFL community.
“Pascal is really friendly and easy to talk to. He’s been instrumental in building awareness about the issue of inclusive language across French-speaking Switzerland,” says Stegmann. “The fact that a man is defending the cause also helps.” But when the woman defending the cause at EPFL is someone like Stegmann, that certainly won’t hurt – on the contrary, as we’ll see after 7 October.