Business Writing Tip #191—Non-Sexist Language

This is a subject I touched on a long time ago, but I thought it was worth including a reminder. It is not just about being politically correct. In many countries the law says that you have to use non-sexist language. But non-sexist language can create some problems.restroom-304987_1280

The Rules

  1. Avoid using gender-specific nouns. Find an appropriate gender-neutral noun to replace them with.
businessmenbusiness executives, business people
mailmenpostal workers, letter carriers
workmenworkers, employees
policemenpolice officers, police
salesmensales force, sales people, sales representatives
man-hoursworking hours
stewardessflight attendant
man (used generically)one, person
  1. If you need to avoid using a singular pronoun (e.g. he or she, his or her), switch your sentence to the plural. Often people write ungrammatical sentences to avoid the he or she/his or her problem.

Incorrect version

The following sentence is ungrammatical because it uses a plural pronoun (their) to refer to a singular subject (each team member). Some people suggest that this is okay. Others disagree. I think it’s best to avoid this type of construction.

  • Each team member is responsible for finalising their section of the report and submitting it before Friday.

Correct, but clumsy (especially if you have to do it a lot in one piece of writing):

  • Each team member is responsible for finalising his or her section of the report and submitting it before Friday.

Best version

  • All team members are responsible for finalising their sections of the report and submitting them before Friday.
  1. Sometimes you can remove the need for a pronoun completely. But make sure that the original meaning of your sentence is clear.
  • To become truly successful a manager must make sure he meets team members regularly.
  • To become truly successful, a manager must make a habit of meeting team members regularly.
  1. If you cannot find a way to rewrite the sentence, use ‘he or she’ or he/she. Do not use s/he. ‘He/she’ is less formal than ‘he or she’ so avoid using it in formal documents.

So there you have it. Some simple ways to make sure your documents are non-sexist. Add ‘remove sexist language’ to your editing/proofing checklist to avoid forgetting to check.

Happy writing.