Eight ways to root out sexism from your writing
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
(and why I love and hate Christmas carols...)
Since originally writing and posting this article, I've received some great additions from friends. I've included those in blue font below. Thanks for your comments, everyone!
You wouldn’t believe how many cover letters I received that started out with that sexist salutation. And those immediately landed in the slush pile.
In those days I managed a multi-state publications team of 70+ technical editors, proposal managers, graphic designers, document publishers, and repro operators, and 80 to 85 percent of my staff was female. Nearly all my leaders were women. The publications and communications fields are dominated by women. Clearly, anyone who started a letter with that salutation did not understand the job. And yes, every single one of those letters were written by men.
I’ve been advocating for nonsexist language in writing ever since I discovered feminism in college. And every Christmas, I’m reminded yet again of how far we have to go.
These are a mere handful of examples. To listen to Christmas carols, you’d think we were all living in Dickens’ time and hadn’t begun to update our language to be more inclusive. Even women singer-songwriters who you would think would know better (for example, Annie Lennox) record Christmas carols with male-centered words.
I love Christmas carols but I also hate them because they have the most old-fashioned, sexist words around. And no, “men” does not mean “men and women.” Neither does “brothers.” Why are Christmas carol lyrics so sacred that we cannot update them to include women and nonbinary people? It’s really easy to do.
As I was preparing to write this article, I made a delightful discovery! An ad agency in the UK, Grey London, teamed with Goldstein Music to reimagine Christmas carols and dismantle the patriarchy at the same time. Hyrrs: Festive Hymns Made Feminist is a wonderful collection of seven Christmas carols rewritten as feminist anthems. For example: “Kick the Balls” (set to “Deck the Halls”), “Oh Sexism” (set to “Oh Christmas Tree”), "More than Half of Women Have Been Sexually Harassed" (set to "Once in Royal David's City), “We Want An Equal Salary” (set to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), and “Stereotypes” (set to “Silent Night”).
Working with engineers for most of my career, I’ve come across a ton of “manholes” and “man-hours,” and I unfailingly edited them to be inclusive (“utility holes” and “staff hours”). CH2M HILL, the global engineering firm where I worked for 28 years, had a diversity commitment and a policy to use nonsexist language, although many did not follow it. I also found, though, that no one challenged me when I changed those terms in the documents I edited.
In my early days at CH2M HILL, our Technical Publications department had a copy of The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, by Casey Miller and Kate Swift. Published in 1980, the guide is an excellent resource but by now I'm sure is outdated.
In my junior year of college in 1985, in "Feminist Theology," I first became aware that God was not necessarily a white man in the sky and a father, and I realized how limiting our language is. I'm stunned and dismayed that we have made so little progress in updating our language to make it more inclusive after all these years.
It does take a bit of creativity and patience to change language to make it more inclusive, but it is always worth the effort.
After all, what if your client is like me and flings your document or email into the slush pile after reading your outdated language? What good is an effort to make companies more diverse and inclusive if they don’t pay attention to the language? And now as increasing numbers of folks identify as nonbinary, we have even more reasons to fix our language.
My friend Ash commented, "I learned years ago to put feminine descriptions first, 'women and men...' Now, I am implementing 'they.'" This article tackles sexism in writing, but I know I need to write another one about how to be inclusive toward nonbinary folx.
Why wouldn’t you want to be more inclusive in your writing so more people can relate to what you are saying? Making your language inclusive is the right thing to do.
Here are eight quick tips on how to get rid of the sexism in your language, whether you are writing or speaking.
1. Never use the pronoun “he” to refer to someone unless you know they use male pronouns
The easiest way to solve this problem is to use the plural form:
The engineer must stamp his specification documents before submitting to the client.
Fixed it: Engineers must stamp their specification documents before submitting to the client.
Other ways to eliminate the generic use of 'he' are to delete pronouns altogether (“Engineers must stamp specification documents before submitting to the client”) or using an article instead of a pronoun (“Engineers must stamp the specification documents before submitting to the client”).
2. Similarly, never use the term “man” or any of its forms to refer to people in general
No, “man” or “men” do not mean people. I bristle when watching “The Lord of the Rings” with its race of “men” (although admittedly those stories have very few women!).
Studies have found that when college students were asked to choose pictures that represented “social man,” “industrial man,” and “political man,” students, regardless of gender, chose pictures of men only. The terms “he” and “man” also do not take female or nonbinary experiences into consideration. Furthermore, using “man” or “men” to refer to all people is just plain lazy and old-fashioned.
Instead of saying “man” or “men,” just say “person” or “people.” You could also use “humans,” “folks,” “friends,” etc.
While we're at it, can we stop saying "SNOWMAN"? Why are all snow creatures automatically men? It makes NO sense. Snowperson works just as well!
And instead of “mankind,” say “humanity” or “humankind.” “Man-made” can be “human-made” or “synthetic.”
I’m trying really hard to stop saying “you guys” when referring to a group that is not all male. “You guys” is not gender inclusive.
3. And while we’re at it, stop saying “man the table”
I don’t remember hearing this term as much when I was younger, but it has proliferated rapidly in the business world until it’s now the most common example of sexist language still around. People use it as a generic term, even if all the people staffing a particular table, booth, checkpoint, or machinery are all women. “Man” is the transitive verb form of “man” as a noun. Yes, it refers to men.
I’m guessing it became popularized from the military, such as “man the ship” or “man the machine guns,” or as Wiktionary says, “to brace oneself or to fortify or steel oneself in a manly way.”
Oh for goodness sake! We do not need to brace ourselves in a manly way to staff a booth!
So many alternatives to this one!
Staff (my preference)
Be assigned to
Be in charge of
4. Root out any pronouns or job titles that confer a male (or female) gender onto the role
Here are some examples and easy substitutions:
5. Avoid the term “girls,” "gals," or “ladies”
Girls: According to an informal survey of my feminist book group members, not all women agree with me on this point. But I maintain that as a woman in her 50s, I should be the only person who calls myself a “girl,” as in “going out with the girls” or “girls’ night out.” People who identify as female and who are over 21 years old are not “girls.” They are women.
Gals: "It is both narrow and racist," Denise Trutanic wrote. "I learned from a friend that 'gal' is a term used like 'boy' to describe an African-American female." I've always disliked the term "gal," even worse than "girl." Denise's comment sent me to the Internet to find some data. In the article, "Slave Names in the Americas," Paulette Brown-Hinds writes that "Contempt for the male was removing his honorific attachment to fatherhood and manhood by being addressed as 'Boy.' Once the vigorous years of his prime were passed, he was allowed to assume the title of 'Uncle.' Females were called 'Gal,' 'Girl,' or the name of some animal." So there you go--not only is the term "gal" sexist, removing one's womanhood, but it's also racist. Banish it from your vocabulary.
And regarding ladies, I am no lady! I prefer to think of myself as a badass.
In British English, “lady” is considered a more respectful term than “woman.” My mother-in-law used to subscribe to a very traditional magazine called The Lady. That is definitely not my style! I am not a member of royalty or a noble. Have you noticed that “lady” is used in a dismissive tone, such as “that lady,” “an old lady,” “the lunch lady,” “a bag lady,” or “the cleaning lady”? I know some women are fine with the term “lady,” but I was one of those young people who didn’t like the color pink and have never been very frou-frou. If someone says “ladies and gentlemen,” it’s less offensive to me personally, but now I will ask, “what about the nonbinary people who are excluded in this term?”
6. Always use parallel terms
Professional accomplishments: By now, we have an unfortunately glaring example of disrespecting a professional, educated woman for her academic degree, 83-year-old failed academic Joseph Epstein. Women with advanced degrees experience these types of dismissals every day. My sister, who’s an internist, tells me many of her patients call her by her first name. Women pastors often do not get the honorific “pastor” in front of their names. But each time we do not confer a professional title when a woman is acting in that capacity, it insults her accomplishments and is a strike toward equality for women. Whenever men are referred to by title, use the appropriate title for female professionals (Ms., Dr., Professor), rather than their first names, unless the person gives you permission to do so.
Everyday language: In the UK, it’s highly common for grown women to be referred to as “girls,” at no matter what age, and it’s particularly cringeworthy to hear or read about “the men and the girls” who are in their 60s or even older!
7. Screw outdated etiquette!
Why is it that when people get married, they revert to the 19th century? Brides.com* still advises addressing wedding invitations (both the invitation itself and when you send them to guests) as “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Warren.” There’s nothing that ticks me off more (well, okay, “manning the booth,” perhaps) than being erased in my marriage. I am not Mrs. Michael Gettel-Gilmartin. I have a name, and I consider it an insult when my name is not used.
Brides.com amends their recommendation by saying, “Many modern women may have a strong aversion to having their name left out and lumped in with their husband. If you are a couple that is sensitive to this, write ‘Mr. Thomas Warren and Mrs. Michelle Warren.’"
Call me a modern woman, I guess. Certainly one with a brain and a name!
In an article called “How to address wedding invitations so you don’t offend anyone,” weddingwire.com advises the old-fashioned approach, failing to recognize that you’re far more likely to offend “modern” women by not