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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