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Avoiding Gender-Based Language Traps

A few highlights from a recent newsletter regarding avoiding gender-based language traps:

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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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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