Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Using Gender-Sensitive Language

by J.J. Murphy

I’m comfortable using terms like flight attendant or fire fighter when I’m referring to an individual who performs that job. I typically struggle with pronoun use.

This is an interesting area of writing technique, because the strategies for applying gender-sensitive language are still being worked out.

Here are some of the choices I am comfortable making when using this gender-sensitive language:

1. If you have a choice, skip the pronoun. I find him/her, (s)he, and even they can be clumsy when I am referring to both male and female subjects. The sentence, Everyone who attends the event has to submit a writing sample, is easier to write than Everyone who attends the event has to submit his/her writing sample.

2. Use you, instead of his/her. The sentence, You should report the results to your team leader, is easier to read than Every member should report his/her results to his/her team leader.

3. When stuck with pronouns, create an imaginary person. I got this tip from Robert Bly, who suggests you create a named character if your only option is to use him/her. Read the following two sentences: 1. If our client Jake Jones makes a list before he shops, he’s likely to save money. 2. If a shopper makes a list before he/she shops, (s)he is likely to save money. You can really hear the difference when you read these out loud.

4. Practice using gender neutral nouns. Here is a short list:

Executive instead of Businessman or Businesswoman

Humanity instead of Mankind

Individual instead of Man

Chair or Chairperson instead of Chairman

Police officer instead of Policeman

Representative or Legislator instead of Congressman

5. Read your work out loud. Pay attention to the number of words that end in man or men. Can you find a more accurate word? Consider using synthetic or artificial, instead of man-made. If you’ve written: Executives and their wives ..., consider changing to: Executives and their guests ... or Executives and their spouses ... for more gender-neutral content. Words like secretary and nurse often have an implied gender. The context of your work will determine whether it makes sense for you to substitute executive assistant or support staff.

6. Limit the use of male and female. Referring to a human being as a male or a female, sounds like a police report to my ear. When referring to plants, animals, fish or insects, I will use male or female. But when I am referring to human beings, I will use boy, girl, adolescent, teenager, man, woman, or a combination, like adolescent boy or twenty-something woman.

My writing goal is to communicate a clear message to my readers and to elicit a response. Removing potential offenders, like gender-biased language is one effective way to keep your reader on message.

JJ Murphy is a freelance writer who helps a variety of companies, small businesses and individuals to express their awareness and dedication to developing sustainable technology and to preserve our natural resources. She provides articles for natural magazines, hiking publications, simple living publications in print and online. She also writes curricula to help public schools home schooling groups, private schools, wilderness camps, adult learning groups, continuing education programs and others stretch and expand their students’ knowledge. She holds a Master of Arts degree from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas and a B.A. degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Connecticut. Her client list includes writers, business consultants, motivational speakers, psychologists, financial planners, educators, and politicians. Visit her website .

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