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:

  1. Avoid using the pronoun altogether (e.g. The manager is responsible for his clients.).
  2. Write in the plural instead (e.g. All clerks must stamp their timecards at the end of their shift.).
  3. Repeat the noun (e.g. Each writer must submit a manuscript. The writer must do so two months prior to publication.).
  4. Use a neutral word, such as “one” (e.g. one’s duties).
  5. 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.

About Kim Siever

I am a copywriter and copyeditor. I blog on writing tips mostly, but I sometimes throw in my thoughts about running a small business. Follow me on Twitter at @hotpepper.

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