Language which reinforces stereotypes and assumptions about gender roles is sexist. Sexist language is often imprecise, and it may be insulting even when used inadvertently. Therefore, in your writing you should make an effort to
Avoid sexist language.
Until recently, modern English usage unquestioningly accepted such words as man, he, and his as generic terms for the whole human species (“No man is an island,” for example). However, people have become more aware of the sexist connotations of much common usage and more sensitive to the need for alternative, or non-sexist, language.
Alternative language may at first seem awkward and unfamiliar. For example, the use of he or she or she/he or s/he in place of the generic he is certainly ungainly and can become an annoying repetition. However, with careful rephrasing and attention to precise meaning, you can avoid even the generic he most of the time. Here are some examples of ways to avoid sexist language:
Often the plural can be substituted, or the pronoun may be eliminated altogether.
The student is accorded freedom to pursue his own educational interests.
Imprecise, unless the school enrolls only one sex. Better: Students are accorded freedom to pursue their own educational interests.
The collective Man:
Again the plural may be substituted. In other cases, specific references or rephrasing may be necessary.
The artist is a man of his time; he creates a visual manifestation of the deepest longings of his culture.
Sexist. Better: Artists are products of their times; they create visual manifestations of the deepest longings of their cultures.
Because man is a being of many environments, his education should not confine him to a limited view of himself.
Sexist. Better: Because we are beings of many environments, our education should not confine us to a limited view of ourselves.
From the images on the cave walls of Paleolithic man...
Sexist. Better: From the images on Paleolithic cave walls...
When common usage implies outdated stereotypes about occupational or social sex roles, more specific or precise language can eliminate the stereotypes. For example, such words as foreman, policeman, stewardess, or mailman may be replaced by non-sexist alternatives like supervisor, police officer, flight attendant, or postal worker. We can use the plural when we discuss both men and women.
The doctor treats his patient...
Sexist. Better: Doctors treat their patients...
The nurse views her work...
Sexist. Better: Nurses view their work...
Another strategy is simply to alternate between masculine and feminine. If you have a male shopkeeper in one example, make sure you have a female racecar driver in another.
There are no universally accepted conventions about sexist and non-sexist language. However, the goal is always to avoid constructions that will offend your readers (whether because of their views on grammar or on sexual politics) enough to distract them from your writing. When in doubt, consult with your professor.
For more information on alternatives to sexist language, refer to Writing about Gender and Sexuality.
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