But old attitudes live on in language. As such, we have to be careful about our word choice so that we don’t accidentally exclude or insult anyone based on sexist or gendered language. Here are some things to watch out for.
It should hopefully go without saying, but some terms are inherently sexist. It would be unusual to use these in academic or formal writing, so we won’t dwell on them for too long. But in case you’re not sure, referring to Boudica as “some old hag who fought the Romans” will not win you high marks for a history essay. And not just because it’s too informal.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some trickier cases of sexist and gendered language, including pronouns and generalizations.
Gendered Pronouns and Words
The most common problem we see, especially in academic writing, is use of gendered language. Pronouns are a great example, since the male pronouns “he” and “his” were often used to refer to any non-specific person in the past. As such, you might find sentences like this in older books:
How someone solves a problem may depend on his past experience.
However, the author is not discussing an actual, specific man in this case. They are just referring to a person in general, so using “his” excludes anyone who doesn’t identify as a “he.” It would be better, then, to use “his or her,” the singular “they,” or plural terms:
How people solve problems may depend on their past experiences.
In this sentence, we avoid gendered language, making it more inclusive.
Similar problems pop up with other terms, especially those that include the word “man.” Usually, these can be avoided by picking a different word. Instead of “policeman,” for example, you could say “police officer.”
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And instead of “mankind,” you could say “humanity.” This doesn’t work for every word, though! The term “manhole,” for example, is still widely used.
Subtly Sexist or Gendered Language
Similar issues can arise with how we describe people of different genders. A classic example is the word “bossy,” which tends to be applied to women more than men (who are instead more usually described as “assertive”).
It can be a good idea, then, to think about the descriptive terms we use when writing about people. Ask yourself, “Would I use this word if the person was a different gender?” This will help you catch subtly sexist or gendered language that you might not usually be conscious of using.
As well as being careful about picking your words, take care not to make hasty generalizations based on sex or gender. These could be sweeping statements about a whole gender (e.g., “All men are lazy”). But they can also be stated less clearly. For instance, we might say the following of someone:
Despite being a man, Daniel is not lazy.
In this case, the main clause “Daniel is not lazy” is fine. But by framing it in terms of “being a man,” we imply that all (or most) men are lazy. Likewise, look out for positive stereotypes, such as:
Rachel will be a good instructor because women are naturally nurturing.
Here, the idea of women being “nurturing” is presented as a positive. But the idea of women as “maternal” or “nurturing” may imply other negative stereotypes (e.g., that women can’t be tough or logical). As such, we should avoid such generalizations even if they’re meant to be positive!
It is much better in most cases to discuss people as individuals than representatives of a gender. And if you need any help coming up with alternatives to gendered language in your writing, it never hurts to have a professional proofreader check your documents.