Safe Sex: How to avoid sexist language in your writing

Beth Conny writes about sexist language and how to avoid it.

Gone are the days when we referred to women as gals or by marital rank. No longer do we describe women as women doctors, pilots or athletes. Our language, at last, reflects our values … or at least political correctness.

Or does it? Vestiges of the past still slip by. We’re all guilty. It takes time to break old habits and, for some of us, change our perception of others. The challenge is none the easier when we come up against words and phrasing we must avoid or write around. Here are but a few examples and solutions.

Example: Throughout mankind, war has been a necessary evil.

That may be true if men alone are to blame. Alas, people are, which is not to say we should use the term “peoplekind.” Instead, go for humankind or, better yet, revise to read: Throughout time, war has been a necessary evil.

Example: Acme Corporation doesn’t have the manpower to meet its deadline.

That may be a true if Acme has an all-male workforce. If not, be inclusive: Acme Corporation doesn’t have the staff to meet its deadline.

Example: Ask the man-on-the-street what he thinks and … .

That may be true if we’re in an all-male neighborhood. (If we happen to be in an all-female neighborhood, we’d ask the woman-on-the-street.) Chances are, however, both sexes are strolling about, which is why we can easily rephrase the sentence to read:Ask average Americans/New Yorkers/teen-agers/etc. what they think and … .

Example: All work stations must be manned.

That may be true if only men can perform that function. If women are up to the task (as undoubtedly they are), use neutral language: All work stations must be staffed.

Example: A company spokesman will speak to the media this afternoon.

That may be true if the spokesman is, in fact, a man. If it’s a woman, go with spokeswoman. If the sex of the individual is unknown, go with spokesperson. (Note, some publications use spokesperson no matter what the sex.)

Example: More than 25 congressmen are up for re-election.

That may be true if all 25 are men. If all happen to be women, use congresswomen. If we’ve got a mixed group, try this: More than 25 U.S. Representatives are up for re-election.

Example: Anyone can succeed in business if he really tries.

That may be true if success were dependent on sex. If not, we have several choices. First, we can substitute she for he, or use both: Anyone can succeed in business if he or she really tries. Second and preferable, we can switch to the plural: With effort, everyone can succeed in business.

Example: The mayor walked into the briefing room and smiled at the newsmen.

That may be true if the mayor were in a good mood and if the briefing room was filled with men. If even a lone female reporter was present, we should go with media to avoid the newsman/newswoman construction. Our sentence would now read: The mayor walked into the briefing room and smiled at the media.

Example: The mayor, wearing a smart red suit and matching pumps, walked into the briefing room and smiled at the media.

That may be true if the mayor were in a good mood and all of the reporters were men. If even a lone female were present, such details have no place unless they are integral to the story (e.g., the mayor has just come from a meeting of the world’s top designers). Rarely, if ever, is a male mayor described by his clothes (unless, of course, he happens to have come from a meeting of the world’s top designers).

 

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