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Avoiding Gender Bias in Writing

As we learn more about the relationship between gendered language and power, and as we increasingly understand gender itself as something fluid and complex, we face uncertainty over which pronouns to use in our writing to avoid alienating our readers. Although the topic of avoiding gender bias in language can be complicated, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Never simply default to “he” to refer to a person in general

Defaulting to “he” to refer to a person in general is arbitrary and privileges masculine identity. We can and should move away from this practice. If you do not believe me, then you should at least be mindful that many influential people do and retaining this use of “he” risks alienating those readers. Here are some alternatives and their potential advantages and disadvantages:

Default to “she” instead, or alternative between “he” and “she” – this might earn you points with some readers, and it does redress the balance. On the other hand, doing so is no less arbitrary than deferring only to “he” and alternating between the two might be distracting and draw attention to your efforts to go out of your way to avoid gender bias.

Default to “he or she” – this is a little more consistent, but can also be unwieldy, drawing attention to self-conscious efforts to avoid gender bias.

Default to “one” – this is the most gender-neutral and grammatically correct option, although it might appear overly formal.

Never use “you” to refer to a person in general

Unless you are writing instructions or advice, do not use “you” to refer to a person in general.

Never assume a gendered pronoun

Not all nurses are women. Not all executives are men.

“They,” “them,” and “their” are plural pronouns

People often resort to plural pronouns such as “they,” “them,” or “their” to refer to a person in general. While this use avoids gender bias, it can also create grammar errors. If you want to use a plural pronoun to avoid gender bias, consider rewriting your sentence. For example:

Singular – A reader (antecedent) who fancies himself (pronoun) progressive might take offense at gendered language.

Plural – Readers (antecedent) who fancy themselves (pronoun) progressive might take offense at gendered language.

Nonetheless, use of plural pronouns to refer to an ungendered, single person has become common enough practice that we often overlook it, and many linguists even condone this use as part of the evolution of the English language. In fact, “they” often sounds more natural than “he or she,” or “one.” Just be aware that your reader might take more offense from grammar errors than gender-specific language.

A note on new words

You may have come across new words intended to replace gender-specific ones, such as the following:

This is certainly an interesting venture, although I would be cautious using these words outside of certain rarefied communities. Some readers might assume you simply made a typo.