How to Avoid Using Sexist Language in Writing: Keep it Neutral

As a writer, one of your functions is to avoid using sexist language in what you produce. You want your writing to be free from bias that will alienate a potential reader. The person trying to read your piece may become distracted from the ideas you are trying to present if you are not careful about the type of language you choose.

Sexier than a Librarian

No Easy Solution for the Issue of Using Sexist Language

Language and writing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, which is probably why many people who write for pay are drawn to this line of work. No two assignments are exactly alike, even if they happen to deal with similar topics, you may get to work with clients in other countries and you are constantly learning something new.

Sexist language has likely crept into our writing without our even realizing it. We’ve struggled with how to present an idea in the most inclusive way, and fallen short – likely without realizing that we were even doing it.

In order to make sure that any gender bias is avoided in our writing, we need to be alert and aware of the way we use language to describe men and women. If we are using language that is drawing attention to our differences unnecessarily, then those parts of our work need to be re-examined and reworked to remove the sexist language.

How to Avoid Using Sexist Language in Writing: Tips

Avoid Using Male Pronouns When Referring to People in General

Traditionally, “He” was used to refer to all members of a group, whether it was made up of all males or males and females. This is no longer considered appropriate, unless you that the group you are referring to in the sentence is made up entirely of men.

Example: Every person I spoke to said he could attend the “Male Survivors of Spousal Abuse Meeting.”

Use “He or She”

If you are trying to find an alternative to using the male pronoun to describe a mixed group of people, you may try using “he or she” instead. This structure is one that is fair but it is easy to get bogged down with if you have to use it several times through the same piece of writing.

To avoid this issue, you can use “they” in your sentence as long as the noun you use is changed to a plural form.

Example: Be sure to mark each student’s name off the list after he or she has signed in.

Becomes: Mark students’ names off the list after they have signed in.

Do Not Use Words Like Boy or Man When Referring to Both Genders

Be careful when you choose language that can refer to either men or women in your writing.

Instead of using “fireman,” or “policeman” you would use “firefighter” and “police officer.” If you had to talk about a “busboy” in a restaurant change the language to refer to “bus staff,” since both males and females do this type of work.

“Gunman” should be changed to “shooter,” even if the person who pulled the trigger is a male.


Do Not Use the Words Girl and Woman Interchangeably

Part of avoiding sexist language in writing is not to treat either gender as less than what are. Be conscious of referring to adult women as “girls,” since some of them may find this type of language offensive.

Sportscasters are particularly amiss at referring to female athletes in this manner. They tend to slip and refer to competitors as women or girls during the same broadcast, while males, who range in age from their teens up (which are the same age groups as their female counterparts) are always referred to as men, never boys.

If you are writing about females in their early teen years for a publication or website specifically for them, it would be appropriate to refer to them as “girls.” Always consider your audience when choosing a term. If you were preparing a report, you may want to refer to this age group as “young women” and stick to that.

All adult women would no doubt appreciate being referred to in that way in writing.

Avoid Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes When Writing

When you refer to males as breadwinners, you are reinforcing a gender stereotype since women are also heads of households and/or in many cases earn more than their male partners. Watch out for details that focus on a woman’s traditional role, such as mentioning whether a female job candidate or someone running for office has children when you do not do the same for a male in the same position. Unless the extra information is relevant to the topic you are writing about, it is best to leave it out.

Use Generic Language Instead of Words with Masculine Markers

The word “man” can be used to describe an adult male as well as adult human. Its meaning is so closely associated with adult male that using “man” and other words with masculine markers should be avoided when writing. Here are some examples:

Original Expression: the man in the street, the common man
Alternatives: ordinary people, the average person

Original Expression: mankind
Alternatives: human beings, people, humanity, humankind, men and women, the human race

Original Expression: man’s achievements
Alternatives: human achievements, people’s achievements, humanity’s achievements

Original Expression: man-made
Alternatives: artificial, manufactured, synthetic, fabricated, simulated

Original Expression: I’m as ambitious as the next man.
Alternative: I’m an ambitious person or I consider myself to be quite ambitious.

Original Expression: man of the Cloth
Alternative: member of the clergy; religious leader, pastor, minister

Original Expression: man to man
Alternative: directly, frankly

Original Expression: man up
Alternative: Deal with it; Put up with it; Tough it out

Original Expression: manhandle:
Alternative: push, shove, tug, drag, mistreat, maul, rough up, jostle, roust, paw

Avoid Adding Gender Markers to Occupations

Some types of work have typically been done by one gender or the other. In conversation, this has led to them being marked by adding a reference to a person’s gender when describing someone working in the field if they are taking on a non-traditional role.

Avoid using the expression, “male nurse” when writing. Instead refer to everyone in the nursing profession, whether they are male or female, as a “nurse.” To say that someone is a “woman pilot” is also inappropriate. You can say, “That woman is a pilot” or “works as a pilot” but since there is no corresponding job called “man pilot” to single her out because of her gender is to be avoided.

If You Aren’t Sure Whether your Language is Neutral

If you are looking at a sentence and you are not sure whether it would pass the “neutrality test,” turn it on its head and ask yourself whether you would use that expression or ask that question or whatever if the subject were male instead of female (or vice versa). If the answer is “Yes,” then you likely have a neutral piece of writing. If it is “No” or you aren’t sure, then you should take another look at it to see whether you need to make some changes to make your writing less biased.

Would you like some more tips on how to avoid using sexist language in writing? Check out these online resources:

University of Arkansas at Little Rock: Avoid Sexist Language

Avoid Sexist (and Other Insensitive) Language

Language Matters: The Importance of Sensitivity in Writing

photo credit: Sexier than a Librarian via photopin (license)

photo credit: Very Clever via photopin (license)


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