It was once, as James Brown sang, a man’s world. But things have changed. Women have fought against traditional ideas of gender and taken their rightful place in politics, academia, business and many other areas of life from which they had previously been excluded. Huzzah!
However, old attitudes sometimes live on in language. As such, we have to be careful about the words we use so that we don’t accidentally exclude or insult anyone based on sexist or gendered language. So to help you know what to watch out for, we’ve prepared this quick guide.
It should hopefully go without saying, but some terms are inherently sexist. It would be unusual to use these terms in academic writing, so we won’t dwell on this issue for too long. But in case you’re genuinely not sure, referring to Boudica as ‘some old hag who thought the Romans’ will not win you good 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 generalisations.
Gendered Pronouns and Words
The most common problem we see, especially in academic writing, is use of gendered language. Pronouns are a great example, as in the past the male pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ were often used to refer to any non-specific person. As such, you might find sentences like this in older books:
How someone solves a problem depends on his past experience.
However, the author is not discussing a particular man in this case, so using ‘his’ is inappropriate. It would be just as easy to use ‘his or her’, the singular ‘they’ or make the sentence plural:
How people solve problems depends on their past experiences.
In this sentence, we avoid using gendered language, making it more inclusive.
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Similar problems pop up with other terms, especially those that include the word ‘man’. Usually, this can be avoided by picking a different word. Instead of ‘policeman’, for example, you could say ‘police officer’. And instead of ‘mankind’, you could say ‘humanity’. This doesn’t work for every word, though! The word ‘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 pause and think about the descriptive terms we use when writing about someone. 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, you should take care not to make hasty generalisations 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:
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 inherently imply that all (or most) men are lazy. Likewise, look out for positive stereotypes:
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 generalisations even if they’re meant to be positive!