Academic writing should avoid making assumptions or value judgements about anyone based on their gender. These can cloud the objectivity of your writing. Many of these assumptions are implicit within language, so it is necessary to avoid terms that
- emphasise gender inappropriately or irrelevantly
- treat women and men unequally
- minimise or trivialise women
While “he” has been used historically as a generic term, it should be avoided. “he or she” is a better alternative, but it can sound awkward:
If a student finds that he or she has problems with his or her report, he or she should ask his or her lecturer for help before he or she gets thoroughly confused.
A better option is to use the plural pronoun “they”:
If students find that they have problems with their reports, they should ask their lecturers for help before they get thoroughly confused.
If you read in a course handout “every student should attend his classes,” the writer is either assuming that none of the students are women, or that those who are will not mind being thought of as male. Neither assumption is safe.
When gender is irrelevant
Avoid using words or phrases which indicate gender when gender is irrelevant:
I went to a function for the celebrated lady novelist.
No-one would say “I went to a function for the celebrated man novelist”, so this gender identification implies that the novelist is a dilettante, a woman who writes as a kind of elegant hobby rather than as a serious career. If you need to identify her further, use her name:
I went to a function for the celebrated novelist, Keri Hulme.
Be cautious with words and phrases compounded with “man”. Like “he”, “man” used to be used in a generic sense, but there are now more appropriate words to use:
- spaceman > astronaut
- mankind > people, humanity
- manmade > artificial
- salesman > seller, sales representative
The bias may not be intentional, such as using “chairman” instead of “chair” or “housewife” instead of “homemaker”. However, the emphasis is not to alienate or insult the audience.
Avoid using words which use a diminutive to imply female:
- usherette > usher
- poetess > poet
(Neither ushers nor poets are inherently male or female.)
“Woman” and “women” are more commonly used than “lady” and “ladies”
Ensure that paired words are equal. For example, instead of “man and wife” use either “man and woman” or “husband and wife”.