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Avoid Gender-Based Language Traps

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Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
Discussions of gender-based language can become heated and frustrating. Some people want to preserve language they consider traditional and appropriate. Others want to adjust language to fit our current world of work. I fall into that second category, preferring inclusive language and words that do not focus unnecessarily on a person’s gender. I recommend avoiding the language traps below. 



1. Avoid “man” words unless you are specifically referring to an adult male. Avoid expressions such as manpower, man hours, and chairman, which focus on men. Instead, use words that include both genders. For example, for manpower, use crew, staff, labor, or personnel. For man hours, use time or work hours. For chairman, choose a word that works for your group, such as chair, chairperson, leader, or convener. Do not be concerned about a word such as manager, which derives from the Latin word for “hand,”  or mandate, whose root means “entrust.”  


 2. Avoid words that communicate a “women-only” category. Use housekeeper rather than chambermaid, and ballet dancer rather than ballerina. Choose server rather than waitress, tailor rather than seamstress, and host or attendant rather than hostess. Baby boomers recall the challenge of remembering to use flight attendant in place of stewardess many years ago, but flight attendant comes to mind instantly now. Actor is appropriate for both genders despite the Academy Award categories of Best Actor and Best Actress. I bet we will soon see Best Male Actor and Best Female Actor Oscar winners.

3. Avoid “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs” as a greeting. It excludes the possibility of a woman as your reader. Instead, whenever possible, learn the reader’s name and use it. If you cannot discover your reader’s name, use a generic term such as “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Credit Representative,” or use “Dear Sir or Madam.” 


4. Think twice before referring to women as girls or ladiesGirls may suggest that women are not grown up or are immature, and ladies hints at delicacy that may not be appropriate in the workplace. I understand that this issue is controversial, and I encourage you to use terms that fit your industry and company. If you use girls, do you call men boys? If ladies is common usage at your company, do you also use gentlemen? For more on this topic, read my blog post “Women, Ladies, and Girls at Work.”  


5. Avoid using the pronouns he and his when you mean anyonenot just a man. For instance, do not write, “A manager should give feedback to his employees.” “His or her” is cumbersome, but the plural form often works well: “Managers should give feedback to their employees.” Read more about this topic in the blog post “His, Hers, Theirs, Yours–Gender-Neutral Language.”


6. Avoid using terms that focus on gender unnecessarily. For example, avoid “male nurse” or “lady animal trainer.” Do not single out a woman employee as a grandmother or a man as a stay-at-home dad. Do not refer to a transgendered individual as “formerly a man” or “used to be female.”


If you feel resistant to the suggestions above, talk with your male and female coworkers about them. Decide whether inclusive rather than gender-based language might work well for your company, your industry, your community, and your customers. Don’t be trapped in gender-based language habits. 
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