Sexist writing is language which excludes one of the sexes. For example, writing “all of the policemen gathered at the parade” is sexist because it excludes women. The correct word to use is “police offers.” History reveals vague periods of time when sexist language might have evolved. We can only assume that sexist writing has been around as long as cuneiform writing (4th millennium BC). Language that contains gender exclusivity can be seen in everything from the Declaration of Independence, where all references are to man and he, to decades of politics that exclude women from all written theory and discussion.
The Problem with Sexist Writing
Sexism entails leaving a portion of the population out of an intelligent exchange. A responsible writer wants to steer clear from sexist language, particularly in non-fiction and business writing, because it is deemed inappropriate. It can alienate one’s readership. When I write I want to gain readers’ trust so I can build credibility and respect. If I were to refer to all subjects in my article as “he” or “him,” instead of “he or she,” “him or her,” or simply “they or them,” I would lose the respect of and connection with my female readers; they would probably stop reading.
Sexist writing marginalizes a portion of readership, reducing the level of persuasion that many writers need to convey an important opinion or to debate opposing views from other experts. You want your readers to be on your side, not on an opposing side because you simply chose to ignore them. It’s best to acknowledge readers of both genders.
Do You Use Sexist Language?
Sexist language creeps into the most honest writing in the most innocent ways. Avoiding sexist writing isn’t as simple as it might seem. Attempting to convey a non-sexist approach might create awkward phrasing and disrupt one’s natural writing style. Linguists once talked about creating a non-gender specific term, but it never came to fruition. That was probably for the best. A “one-size-fits-all” solution isn’t really practical.
Let’s review common forms of sexist writing and how to avoid them. One solution will not solve all potential problems. Specific issues will require distinctive approaches and different ways to convey the same idea without losing its intent. e.g.
Before a student takes the final exam, he should study last semester’s materials.
Writing should never allude to the idea that a member of a specific gender covers all situations. Using a masculine or feminine pronoun to indicate all genders can distract a reader from the meaning of the sentence. The solution is to avoid the pronoun or use a plural.
Before taking the final exam, students should study last semester’s materials.
Or, Before a student takes the final exam, he or she should study last semester’s materials.
Writing, of course, is about originality. Using the same technique repeatedly may lead to tiresome reading. Look for ways to express the same structure in different ways, the way the two examples above do.
When it comes to professional positions, use:
- mail carrier instead of mailman
- flight attendant instead of stewardess or steward
- waiter and waitress instead of server
Remember that a specific gender doesn’t necessarily dominate a field. Use:
- firefighter instead of fireman
- police officer instead of policeman
- homemaker instead of housewife
- nurse instead of male nurse
- average person instead of common man
- chairperson instead of chairman
- businessperson instead of businessman
Mankind has evolved immensely since the Industrial Revolution.
Avoid using terms like man and mankind to represent everyone. Instead, use: humanity, human race or person, where applicable. Always look for ways to avoid the masculine or feminine, striving for industry-accepted terms that are more appropriate.
The human race has evolved immensely since the Industrial Revolution.
Once a doctor is ready to operate, he or she must wash his or her hands.
Using both sexes (“he or she”) is another method to avoid sexist writing, but it’s burdensome phrasing and, if there are multiple instances, gets tired very fast. When gender inclusivity like this is pushed to extremes, readers might feel that the writer is trying too hard.
When ready to operate, doctors must wash their hands.
Structuring sentences to use the plural is most common. It’s the most efficient language for avoiding gendered pronouns and possessive adjectives. It also results in a smoother read, creating grammatically viable and readable prose.
When it appropriate to select gender only
What is factual or simple common sense will let you select one gender only, such as addressing male readers to discuss testicular cancer or addressing only female readers to discuss pregnancy.
In the end, writers want their work to be all inclusive and non-discriminatory. Remove sexist terms and phrases from your writing and you will have happy readers who respect your thoughts and who can digest your information more easily.