Tips for writers: Avoiding sexist and biased language: part 1

male and female signage on wall

Tips for writers: Avoiding sexist and biased language: part 1

In the first part of this blog I will discuss the occurrence and the effect of using sexist language and in part 2 I will go on to the wider issues of using stereotypes and biased language.

Meaning and occurrence

Sexist language refers to words, terms, or usages that discriminate against or exclude either of the sexes, and that assume maleness, or even femaleness is the standard.

Despite many years of feminist campaigners and attempts to raise awareness of the use of sexist language, it still widely exists in modern life. Gender-specific titles and pronouns are examples of sexism and can subtly influence our thoughts about gender roles in society and what are the occupational expectations for the sexes.

Sexist language can take several forms, including:

  • When pronouns are used that denote a single sex despite the information relating equally to both sexes. For example, “Every delegate should bring his seminar plan and notes with him to each session.” It is unlikely that the seminar would be attended by only males. Also, “The nurse helped her patient prepare for discharge from hospital”.
  • A job title sometimes relates the job to one specific sex, but the job can be performed by either sex. Examples of this are multitudinous, as in fireman, laundrywoman, postman, and shipmaster. These could be rewritten as firefighter, laundry worker, post deliverer, and ship’s captain.

Reasons to avoid sexist language

  • Sexist language encourages discrimination and can discourage people from pursuing their ambitions. If females are constantly told that being engineers is a man’s role it may discourage them from training for such a role. The reverse applies to men in traditionally female roles such as in nurseries or midwifery.
  • Sexist language also offends people and they can feel excluded. This is not an issue of the right to free speech but the right for all people to feel included.
  • If sexist language is used it could automatically lead to half the audience not being receptive to your message and possibly feeling aggrieved.

How to avoid sexist language

The goal is to avoid referring to individual people as male or female, and to speak in hypothetical statements to mixed-gender groups. These are just a few tips:

  • Use genderless titles whenever possible, such as flight attendant instead of stewardess and homemaker instead of housewife.
  • Avoid adding gender markers to genderless titles, such as male nurse instead of nurse.
  • Use humanity or the human race instead of man or mankind if you are referring to all people.
  • In referring to a single hypothetical individual, use person instead of man, for example business person / business manager / business executive, not businessman or businesswoman.
  • Rework sentences to the plural and use a plural pronoun to avoid gendered pronouns and possessive adjectives. This will create more grammatically correct writing than using a plural pronoun with a singular subject.

Sexist version: “Each teacher makes up his own schedule.”

Non-sexist and grammatically incorrect: “Each teacher makes up their own schedule.”

Non-sexist and grammatically correct: “Teachers make up their own schedules.”

  • When it is not possible to recast sentences in the plural, use he or she or his or her so as to be inclusive. (“The winner must claim his or her prize by the end of the month.”) However, using this method too frequently can break up the flow of your writing, so use it infrequently.
  • Think of ways to avoid using personal pronouns such as he, she, his or her. For example. One way is to use an article, such as “a”, “an”, or “the”.

Note: Do not take gender-inclusivity to extremes; every individual has a gender and can be referred to in that way. Also, some biological facts apply only to women or only to men. For instance, if you are writing an article on childbirth, you would not refer to “a pregnant man or woman”.