Avoiding Gender-Based Language Traps

This month's e-newsletter, Better Writing at Workfeatures an article on avoiding gender-based language traps. Below are highights from the 545-word article. 

1. Avoid "man" words unless you are specifically referring to an adult male. Avoid expressions such as manpower, man hours, and chairman.

2. Avoid words that communicate a "women-only" category. Use housekeeper rather than chambermaid, ballet dancer rather than ballerina.

3. Avoid "Dear Sir" or "Dear Sirs" as a greeting. It excludes the possibility of a woman as your reader. 

4. Think twice before referring to women as girls or ladies. Girls may suggest that women are not grown up or are immature, and ladies hints at delicacy that may not be appropriate in the workplace.

5. Avoid using the pronouns he and his when you mean anyone–not just a man. For instance, do not write, "A manager should give feedback to his employees." 

6. Avoid using terms that focus on gender unnecessarily. For example, avoid "male nurse" or "lady animal trainer." Do not refer to a transgendered individual as "formerly a man" or "used to be female."


Even if you use gender-neutral language, you may need to watch for it in other people's writing on the job. Some people resist the idea of changing from traditional phrasing such as "Dear Sir" and "man hours." A reader of my newsletter responded angrily, writing that it was fine to write that a woman behaved "manfully." 

Where do you stand on the issue of gender-based language? Can women behave manfullyDoes "Dear Sirs" cover everyone? Are the women in your company "girls"? 

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