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By Riteba McCallum
September 24, 2021

How to Make Your Writing More Gender Inclusive

What Is Gender-Inclusive Language?

Using gender-inclusive language means choosing words and expressions that include people of all genders (women, men, nonbinary people, and so on). It means avoiding generic masculine pronouns and words like “mankind” to stand in for people of all genders. It also means being conscientious of the fact that not everyone is a cis-het man or woman and writing in a way that is inclusive of their identity and experience.

Why Should You Make Your Writing Gender-Inclusive?

Everyone is aware that the generic “he” is meant to include other genders and that words like “fireman” and “mailman” don’t prevent women from entering these professions. Although these words reflect a more sexist past, many people argue that what matters today is the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, not the words we use.

Well, it turns out that words matter. If you’re a professional writer or translator, you probably know this intuitively already, but it’s also backed by science. Cognitive scientists like Lera Boroditsky have shown that language can shape the way we think, and many studies suggest that using gender-inclusive language has a real-world effect on people’s biases and behaviours.

That’s why in this article we’ve rounded up the most common linguistic habits that can be exclusionary in English. We’ll show you how to avoid them in a way that sounds completely natural. In fact, far from sounding contrived or like you’re bending backwards to be politically correct, gender-inclusive language can actually make your writing more accurate, concise and relevant.

Avoid Words That Use “Man” as a Prefix or Suff

Unsurprisingly, research shows that when people hear or read the word “man,” even when it’s used generically, they form mental pictures of males. Especially in the context of job titles, words including “man” as prefix or suffix are clearly not representative when applied to roles and occupations that can be filled by other genders.

Furthermore, when we constantly picture businessmen, firemen, chairmen, etc. as men, we end up unconsciously reinforcing the stereotype that these are roles for men, and women and girls become less likely to imagine themselves in these careers.

Luckily, for almost every word with “man” in it, there are perfectly suitable synonyms. Here are some suggestion

businessmen businesspeople, people in business
chairman chair, chairperson, presiding officer
mankind humankind, humanity, people, human beings, the human species
man-made manufactured, machine-made, synthetic, artificial, fabricated
salesman salesperson, salesclerk, clerk, sales representative
repairman mechanic, electrician, plumber (as applicable)
workman worker, employee
manpower workforce, labour, labour force, staff, personnel
the common man / the man in the street / the average man ordinary person, average person, typical citizen (resident, etc.)
to man to staff, to operate, to manage
freshman first-year student
policeman police officer
congressman legislator, congressional representative

Tip: Writers often use occupation names with the “man” suffix when the titleholder is a man, and the gender-neutral version when it’s a woman. E.g. John Smith is chairman of the board and Julia Jones is chair of the board. This is somewhat silly. We encourage you to use the gender-neutral term for both, since that is the point of it being neutral.

Use Inclusive Pronouns

For the same reason that we avoid the generic “man,” you should avoid the generic “he.” A study showed that the use of the generic “he” in a job posting made women reading it feel less included in that professional environment and less motivated to pursue the job, compared to a posting for the same job that used gender-inclusive terms, even though the women knew rationally that “he” was meant to include them

One of the most common solutions to generic masculine pronouns is the use of “she or he,” “he/she,” “her/his.” However, this is not recommended for two reasons. Firstly, a text full of these pairings becomes clunky and awkward. Secondly, it has become widely accepted that “he” and “she” are not the only two genders. To be truly inclusive, it is important to include nonbinary people.

Instead of “he or she,” try the followin

  • Make it plural. Instead of A good student always does his homework, write Good students always do their homework.
  • Repeat the noun or use a synonym. Instead of The general manager is responsible for operations. His main tasks include…, write The general manager is responsible for operations. The incumbent’s main tasks include…
  • Replace the possessive pronoun with an article. Instead of If a student hasn’t done his homework, write If a student hasn’t done the homework.
  • Use singular “they.” For example, Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Could you please let them know where they can get it? “They” has been used as a common-gender singular pronoun for hundreds of years. Although style guides are split on the issue, the trend is towards singular “they” becoming increasingly accepted as grammatically correct.

Good to know: An interesting study found that when people used a gender-neutral pronoun, it reduced their own subconscious bias and increased their positive feelings towards women and LGBTQ+ people. The words we choose can shape the way we think!

Consider Word Order

When listing two subjects, we tend to place the term that we consider more dominant or important first. A study on how people use phrases that join two gendered words (like “men and women” or “mothers and fathers”) found that women are more likely to be listed first in contexts related to family or school than in a business context, implying that women are more relevant in the home than in the workplace. If you catch yourself doing this, consider flipping the order for a change. Or even better: unless there’s a good reason to list both these genders, opt for a more inclusive term like “parents.” This option includes nonbinary people and has the benefit of making your writing more concise.

Pay Attention to Terms of Address

Another example of gendered language that can reflect certain biases or stereotypes is the way terms of address like “Mr.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.” are used.

“Mr.” can refer to any man, regardless of whether he is single or married, but “Miss” and “Mrs.” define women by whether they are married or not, which until quite recently meant defining them by their relationships with men. A simple alternative when addressing or referring to a woman is “Ms.,” which doesn’t indicate marital status.

Moreover, terms of address should be used symmetrically. If a man’s name is given in full, so should a woman’s.

Good: Gerard Tanaka and Maria Cosentini
Good: Ms. Cosentini and Mr. Tanaka
Bad: Mr. Tanaka and Maria
Bad: Mr. and Mrs. Gerard Tanaka

Tip: You can also use “Mx.” as a gender-neutral title. Alternatively, when in doubt, consider dropping titles of address from your text altogether—this level of formality is not always necessary.

Question Superfluous Descriptions

One habit that stands in the way of clear, accurate, bias-free writing is including information (often about women) that is unrelated to the context or that confuses private roles with public ones. Mentioning off-topic details, like appearance and marital status, distracts from the important information. Not sure what counts as irrelevant? Ask yourself whether you would include the same information in the description of a man.

Bad: Spunky manager Rebecca Tellier convinced the vice-president to fund the project.
Bad: The mother of two was elected for a second term as mayor.

Adjectives like spunky, bubbly, feisty, hysterical or sassy (i.e. words that are never used to describe a man) carry certain sexist connotations, even when used as a compliment. Describing women as widows, mothers, grandmothers, petite, blonde, and so on is usually extraneous to the meaning of the sentence.

Tip: When someone holds a job or position that is unconventional for their gender, writers sometimes feel the need to point this out by indicating the person’s sex. For example, some people may unconsciously assume that plumbers are men and that administrative assistants are women. Sentences like “The female plumber unclogged the drain” or “The male secretary scheduled the appointment” reinforce such assumptions. Unless the person’s gender is relevant to the substance of the information, it should be omitted.

Want to Know More?

Most of these suggestions are from Editing Canadian English (3rd Ed.) by Editors Canada. This book also has great tips on how to make your writing inclusive for people with different ethnicities, sexual orientations and disabilities.

At OXO Innovation, our editors can revise your text (whether it’s in English or another language) to make sure it’s as inclusive as it can be. We can also help you develop your own company writing guide that addresses these matters. Contact us to learn more about our multilingual editing services.

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