Using Unbiased Language

Avoiding Sexist Terminology

Avoid language based on hurtful assumptions about gender. A responsible, sensitive writer will never make assumptions about gender role. Whether words such as chairman and congressman are sexist and hurtful and whether their substitutes, chairperson and members of congress, are unnecessary and cumbersome is an argument that some people will still make, but if we can avoid the argument (and the possibility of hurt) with the use of reasonable substitutes, it’s well worth it. The following table lists words that many people regard as sexist and some appropriate substitutes for those words.


Use Instead

actress actor
anchorman anchor
all forms of alumnus/a alum/grad
alumni/ae alums/grads
businessman businessperson
chairman chairperson, chair
coed student
forefathers ancestors
foreman supervisor
freshman/freshmen first-year students, frosh
mailman mail carrier
male nurse nurse
man (meaning any human being) person, people
managers and their wives managers and their spouses
mankind humanity, people
poetess poet
policeman police officer
salesman sales representative, salesclerk
stewardess flight attendant
waiter/waitress server

Copy Editor Bill Walsh has this to say about using the word “female”:

In most cases, use “woman” as the noun and “female” as the adjective. “Female soldiers,” “female priests.” Things like “women senators” should be confined to quotes (does anybody say men senators?). “Female” is OK as a noun when talking about animals, when it hasn’t been established whether the person in question is a woman or a girl, and when talking about a group that includes both women and girls. If it’s ever necessary to use the sexist cliche “women drivers,” that would be an exception.

In the box below is a perfectly wonderful definition of a college. It was written, probably in the late 1940s, by Howard Lowry, a critic of nineteenth-century literature and a President of the College of Wooster. There are word choices in this definition, however, that might make people cringe today.

A college is a corner of men’s hearts where hope has not died. Here the prison house has not closed; here no battle is yet quite lost. Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dream as men. Here lies our sense of community.

How would we write this piece of text differently today? How about “A college is a corner of our hearts where hope has not died” and “Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dreams”? We certainly have not improved upon the sound of Lowry’s words, but have we lost anything by these changes? Probably not much, and what we have lost, we’ve more than gained by decreasing the chances of offending or marginalizing an entire gender from the definition of a college — something that would never have entered Howard Lowry’s mind at the time of composition.


Referring to Groups of People

Any time a writer wishes to or has to refer to a group of people to the exclusion of others, he or she must be cautious not to use language that is regarded as hurtful by the group being referred to. Staying current with appropriate language is not always easy, but it is important. Discussion is ongoing, and it reflects important changes in our culture. Thus, writers should make an effort to stay informed and should consciously attempt to avoid divisive language that offends, stereotypes, belittles, or hurtfully excludes people.