Skip to main content
Logo image

Sound Writing

Subsection 6.2.2 Language Toward Gender Inclusivity

Sexism refers to discrimination against individuals based on sex and has historically described discrimination specifically against women. The perceived social and biological inferiority of women has existed for centuries in the West (and also throughout the globe), and although women in the last century have made advances—the right to own property and vote, for example—sexism prevails, especially against women of color and trans women. Women still, on average, earn lower wages than men; women are much more likely than men to be raped or stalked; and women are still underrepresented in positions of power and leadership. Importantly, women of color, at the intersection of race and gender, face each of these challenges to a greater extent than White women. Examples of such intersectional injustices are how, on average, White and Asian American women make about 20% less than White men, while Black and Latina women make about 30 and 40% less than White men respectively or how female immigrants of color sometimes have to choose between reporting domestic abuse and facing deportation or detention. (To learn more about intersectionality, visit Subsection 6.2.1) Part of writing with awareness and respect means that you as an author are attentive to the context of historical and current discrimination that women face and cognizant of how the choices you make in writing engage with that context.
Writing with attention to gender inclusivity, however, can be onerous because sexism is ingrained in English. As we wrote at the beginning of this chapter, language can embody prejudice, discrimination, and hierarchies. We have historically used the pronoun “he” as the standard, universal pronoun. In English, we have only “Mr.” for men (a title that is the same, regardless of men’s marital status), but “Miss” and “Mrs.” for women (titles that mark not only gender but also marital status as an essential component of a woman’s identity). We also have policemen, firemen, fishermen,and many other job titles that are used generically for all employees in the profession, even though women also work in those professions; many of those titles have female equivalents (policewoman, firewoman, fisherwoman), but those titles are never used generically to refer to all people in the profession—and gender is not necessarily important to the work involved in those job titles.
But language changes! “He” is no longer generally accepted as a universal pronoun, and alternatives like singular “they” have grown in popularity and acceptance (to read more about they as a singular pronoun, check out They As a Singular Pronoun). “Ms.” was created as a parallel title to “Mr.,” as titles that do not mark marital status. Professional titles such as “flight attendant,” instead of “stewardess,” offer gender-neutral job titles that emphasize the work the person does, rather than the gender of the person doing the work. These changes come not from grammarians; they come from people like you who saw injustice and acted against it. Keep reading to learn more about what you can do to continue to combat sexism in your speaking and writing.
List 6.2.4. Strategies for Writing with Gender Inclusivity in Mind
  • Mix up the order.
    If you refer frequently to men and women, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, etc., mix up the order to avoid putting one gender continually ahead of the other. In fact, unless gender is a central facet of your discussion, it’s better to avoid perpetuating gender binaries by using alternatives such as “distinguished guests,” “people,” “human beings,” “children,” “adults,” “individuals,” and “couples.”
  • Refer to women in the same way you would men.
    If you wouldn’t say “Mr. Faulkner” when writing about Faulkner, then don’t say “Ms. Austen” when writing about Jane Austen. Similarly, if a woman holds a title like “Dr.,” then refer to her as Dr. in the same way you would refer to a male M.D. or Ph.D.
  • Avoid sexist descriptions and terminology.
    Numerous English words are rooted in sexist ideas about how women should act and live. Terms like “barren,” “spinster,” “feisty,” “coy,” “shrill,” “emotional,” “hysterical,” “frumpy,” “exotic,” “ditzy,” and “catty” can all convey implicit judgments about women. Note: the word “exotic” in particular is an intersectionally oppressive word that has been historically applied to women of color. The word acts to reify Whiteness as the norm while in turn hypersexualizing women of color, and thus making them the targets of sexual violence.
  • Be conscious of gender stereotypes.
    Pay attention to where you’re using particular pronouns. Making generalized statements that assume a gender-specific pronoun, like “A good nurse always knows where to find her scrubs” or “Every experienced lawyer knows what it feels like to lose his first trial” are forms of sexist language because they perpetuate gender stereotypes (i.e., the assumption that nurses are always women and lawyers are always men).
  • Be conscious of heteronormativity.
    Women don’t always marry men. Women don’t always marry. To this effect, statements such as “He needs a girlfriend” or “She should get married” perpetuate heteronormative expectations.
  • Be conscious of cisnormativity.
    Discussions about the human body, its anatomy, and its internal processes often assume that all people identify as the gender that they were assigned at birth, but this lack of inclusivity can lead to misinformation and oversimplification. For example, it would not be correct to say “Only women can menstruate” because some transgender men and non-binary people can menstruate as well. It would be more correct and specific to say “Only people with uteruses can menstruate.”
List 6.2.5. Terms
is discrimination against individuals, historically women, based on sex.
refers to institutionalized or deeply held hate or prejudice toward women.
describes when masculinity is central to a particular entity or outlook.
refers to the belief system that normalizes and prefers a patriarchal, heterosexual, and gender binary way of living.
is an adjective and umbrella term that describes individuals whose gender identity is different from the sex that they were assigned at birth. Many people take hormones and some undergo surgery, but neither of these medical treatments is requisite for a transgender identity. This term can be shortened to “trans.” It is inappropriate to use transgender as a noun (e.g., a transgender) or to use the term transgendered.
refers to individuals whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth.
is a shortened version of transgender. The asterisk in trans* represents the multitude of identities that “trans” encompasses, and it is most often used to denote when the word “transgender” is being used as an umbrella term. For example, a binary transgender man is not trans*, but he is a part of the trans* community.
is an umbrella term that describes all gender identities other than strictly male or female. A person who identifies as nonbinary might identify as neither male nor female, both male and female, or somewhere in between the two.
Gender Non-Conforming
is an adjective that describes when someone’s expression of their gender does not adhere to normative expectations about how men and women should behave and dress. Both cis and trans people can be gender non-conforming.
Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking courses in Gender Studies, Queer Studies, or Women’s Studies or looking into programs offered by your university’s diversity center are great places to start.