7 examples of sexist language to avoid in your writing

Professional copywriter Kim Siever highlights 7 ways to avoid sexist language in your writing.

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Sexist stereotyping, despite efforts spanning decades to change it, still exists, and it’s pervasive in how we communicate. Sexist stereotyping — well, stereotyping in general — is a poor way to communicate because it relies on assumptions and generalizations that often don’t apply to the situation at hand.

Here are 7 ways to avoid sexism in your own writing, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

1. Address men and women uniformly
If you know the form by which a person prefers to be addressed, use it. If you don’t, address men and women equally. For example, “Mr. Smith” and “Ms. Jones.” (Note, you could use Miss or Mrs, too, if it’s preferred, but I advocate for using Ms whenever possible.)

In formal correspondence, don’t use “Dear Messrs.”, “Dear Sirs”, or any similar format when addressing a body of several individuals. Instead use phrases like “Dear board members” or “To whom it may concern.”

2. Use parallelism
I’ve talked about parallelism in the past, and it’s a good tool to use when talking about men and women together because it treats them as equals. For example,

John Smith and Julie Brown
Mr. Smith and Ms. Brown
J. Smith and J. Brown
John Smith, the writer, and Julie Brown, the doctor
Same goes for couples. Gone are the days when we write “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith”. Instead, use one of the following:

Mr. and Ms. John and Betty Smith
John and Betty Smith
Mr. and Ms. Smith
John and Betty
Even though work relationships have a built-in superior – subordinate dynamic, still use parallelism: “Julie Brown and her assistant Kevin Jensen”, not “Julie Brown and her assistant Kevin”.

And for that matter, don’t feel pressured to always refer to the man first.

3. Gender neutral pronouns
There is no gender-neutral, singular pronoun in English. Traditionally, “he” has been used, but that’s obviously sexist. As I’ve indicated in the past, using “their” is a perfectly reasonable alternative and has been in use for centuries.

If “they” sounds too uncomfortable to you, try these 5 tips to avoid using singular pronouns:

Avoid using the pronoun altogether (e.g. The manager is responsible for his clients.).
Write in the plural instead (e.g. All clerks must stamp their timecards at the end of their shift.).
Repeat the noun (e.g. Each writer must submit a manuscript. The writer must do so two months prior to publication.).
Use a neutral word, such as “one” (e.g. one’s duties).
Use second-person pronouns (e.g. “you” and “your”).
4. Don’t use gendered pronouns to personify objects
When you personify storms, events, ships, and so on, avoid using feminine and masculine pronouns. Just use “it” instead.

Hurricane Irene made landfall in St. Croix as a strong tropical storm. While crossing Puerto Rico the following day, it strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane.
5. Avoid terms in titles that refer to sex
When writing titles or terms for occupations, avoid any that suggest the job is not normally performed by one sex or the other. Here are some examples:

letter carrier not mailman
spokesperson/representative not spokesman
chairperson/chair not chairman
firefighter not fireman
councillor not councilman or alderman
technician not repairman
police officer not policeman
trade worker not journeyman
cleaner not cleaning woman
fisher not fisherman
Related to that, avoid feminizing titles with “ess“, “ette”, or “ix” (actor instead of actress, usher instead of usherette, etc). Also, avoid using terms like “lady doctor” and “male nurse”.

6. Don’t use “man” as part of a compound
Try to avoid using “man” as part of a compound when referring to people in general.

average person not common man
ordinary people not the man in the street
staff/operate/run a booth not man a booth
labour force/personnel/staff/work force not manpower
synthetic or manufactured not man-made
humanity/people not mankind
compatriot not countryman
7. Use inclusive wording for relationships
Unless you’re speaking about a specific relationship, avoid stereotypes in relationships:

Parent and child, not mother and child
Doctors and their spouses, not doctors and their wives
As I mentioned previously, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you’ve found it useful. If you have tips you want to add, let me know in the comments below.


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