Avoid Sexist Language

Sexist language is language that unnecessarily identifies gender. It can take several forms:

  1. a pronoun that denotes a single sex when the information being conveyed pertains equally to either or both sexes
    • Ex.  Every student should have his notebook with him in class. (only appropriate at an all-male school)
  2. a job title that links the job to a single sex when either sex can perform the job
    • Ex.  fireman, mailman, policeman
  3. a single sex pronoun in conjunction with a neutral job title, so that the implication is that the job “belongs” to a single sex
    • Ex.  The nurse awoke her patient at five a.m.
  4. any other use of language that unnecessarily and arbitrarily makes gender distinctions
    • Ex.  early man used a system of gestures to communicate

To Avoid Sexist Language

Although it may often seem that avoiding sexist language can lead one into using awkward or grating constructions, it is also possible to use gender-neutral language gracefully and unobtrusively.

Using Pronouns:

When using pronouns, you have several choices.  Pick the one that seems most natural in context:

1. Change singular nouns to plurals and use a gender neutral pronoun, or try to avoid the pronoun entirely:

             Instead of: Each student must have his notebook with him in class.

             Use: All students must have notebooks with them in class.

             Or: Senator who cannot serve a full term of office…

2. If you think you must use a singular adjective like “each” or “every,” try to avoid using a pronoun:

             Instead of: Each student must hand in his homework on Thursday.

             Use: Each student must hand in the assigned homework on Thursday.

3.When using a job title, try to eliminate the pronoun:

             Instead of: A truck driver should plan his route carefully.

             Use: A truck driver should plan the travel route carefully.

4. When eliminating the pronoun seems unavoidable, use both male and female pronouns:

             Instead of: A student should meet with his advisor.

             Use: A student should meet with his or her advisor.

5. Alternate make and female pronouns throughout the paper — but this can be tricky, since it can make the paper confusing.

6. Choose a single-sex pronoun and use it consistently throughout the paper — but be especially careful not to do this in a way that will perpetuate stereotypes.  For example, it might be unwise to use “he” and “him” when talking about professions stereotypically associated with males; e.g., engineering.

7. Be careful about using constructions like his/her, he/she. Many readers find these awkward and distracting. Check with your instructions for their preferences (or check with your instructor for his or her preference).

Using Titles:

Instead of sex-linked titles, try neutral titles:

  • Fireman – fireperson is awkward, but firefighter is not
  • Policeman – policeperson sounds silly, but police officer sounds natural
  • Mailman – mailperson seems awkward, postal worker does not
  • Cleaning woman – house cleaner, office cleaner, custodian are all preferable
  • Poetess – poet can be either a woman or a man and does not sound as if a woman poet is so odd that she needs a special appellation

Miscellaneous Matters

1. Avoid using “man” as a noun when you are really referring to men and women.

             Instead of: Early man used a system of gestures to communicate

             Use: Early humans used…

             Or: Early men and women…

2. Although alternative spellings for words referring to gender are favored by some (example: womyn, herstory), generally in academic work these will be a problem. We suggest using traditional spelling or checking with your instructor.