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Gender Neutral Writing

Remove sexist language and make your documents gender neutral

The goal of gender-neutral language is to avoid implicit or explicit references to gender or sex. The language should be as inclusive as possible and not make any assumptions about traits or professions belonging to one gender or the other. Methods include:

  • Avoid terms for professions that are gender specific, such as policeman or watchman. Instead, use gender neutral terms like police officer and guard.
  • Avoid modifiers that imply gender-specific traits, such as man-size. Use words that specifically identify the trait, such as large.
  • Avoid including gender modifiers that assume that certain professions belong to one gender, such as male nurse or female doctor. Remove the modifier unless it is absolutely needed in context.
  • When writing technical documents or manuals, try to avoid the use of he or him to refer to both genders. Try to reword the sentence to avoid their use, alternate or use combined phrases such as his or her.
  • Avoid general words that tend to exclude one gender, such as mankind. Use gender neutral words like humanity instead.
  • Avoid sexist language that makes assumptions about gender makeup of certain professions or endeavors, such as only girls dance ballet, or only boys play baseball. Keep your writing gender-neutral.

    Click here to see how myWriterTools can remove sexist language from your documents 

Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language

The following is a summary of the gender neutral NCTE Guidelines revised in 2002, by Women in Literacy and Life Assembly (WILLA). It is full of tips to help you keep your writing gender-neutral and avoid sexist language. The complete document is available from the GenderBender screen of the myWriterTools program, or by clicking here.

Word choices often reflect unconscious assumptions about gender roles. As professionals, we all need to examine our language to reduce or eliminate gender choices that silence, stereotype, or constrain others.

1. The Pseudo-Generic He and His: Creating Gender Balance and Gender Neutral language

A. The use of he or his when referring to both a female and a male excludes the female. To be inclusive, writers and presenters must use both he and she, and they must consciously balance pronoun use by sometimes reversing their order.
If a student studies hard, he will succeed. If a student studies hard, he or she will succeed.
  Students who study hard will succeed.

B. Sometimes it is possible to drop the possessive form his altogether or to substitute an article.
The average student is worried about his grades. The average student is worried about grades.

C. Often, it makes sense to use the plural instead of the singular.
Give the student his grade right away. Give the students their grades right away.

D. The first- or second-person pronoun can sometimes be substituted for the third person.
As a teacher, he faces excessive paperwork daily. As teachers, we face excessive paperwork daily.

E. In some situations, the form one/one's can be substituted for he/his, but this construction should be used sparingly to avoid changing the tone of the writing.
He might wonder what his response should be. One might wonder what one's response should be.

F. A sentence with he or his can sometimes be recast in the passive voice. Although the passive voice has been much maligned, it has a valid function if not overused.
Each student should hand in his paper promptly. Papers should be handed in promptly.

G. A sentence with he or his can be recast by substituting a participial phrase for a clause.
Listen to the two-year-old as he uses his short, simple sentences to communicate. Listen to the two-year-old using short, simple sentences to communicate.

H. When the subject is an indefinite pronoun, a number of options exist.

- Recast the sentence to avoid using the indefinite pronoun.
When everyone contributes his own ideas, the discussion will be a success. When all the students contribute their own ideas, the discussion will be a success.

- Use both pronouns (he or she; her or his). >
When everyone contributes his own ideas, the discussion will be a success. When everyone contributes her or his own ideas, the discussion will be a success.

- Use the plural pronoun when the indefinite referent is clearly understood to be plural.
When everyone contributes his own ideas, the discussion will be a success. When everyone contributes their own ideas, the discussion will be a success.

- Use of the singular they/their form. This construction is becoming increasingly acceptable. However, classroom teachers need to be aware that state and/or national assessments may not regard this construction as correct. It does remove possible sexist languge and keep the writing gender neutral.
When everyone contributes his own ideas, the discussion will be a success. When everyone contributes their own ideas, the discussion will be a success.
Does each student have his book? Does each student have their book?


2. The Pseudo-Generic Man: Creating Gender Balance

A. Like the pseudo-generic form he, the use of the word man to represent both women and men excludes women, and it minimalizes their contributions and their worth as human beings. To make language more gender neutral and inclusive:
mankind humanity, human beings
man's achievements human achievements
man the ticket booth staff the ticket booth

B. When describing a job or career both men and women might perform, avoid using a combined term that specifies gender.
chairman/chairwoman chair, chairperson
policeman/policewoman police officer
mailman postal worker

3. Titles, Labels, and Names: Promoting Gender Equity and Nonsexist language

The titles used to name people and occupations often reflect inequitable assumptions about males and females. Gender-fair language promotes more inclusive and equitable representations of both females and males, opening possibilities rather than restricting choices and keeping the writing gender-neutral.

a. Identify men and women in the same way. Diminutive or special forms to name women are usually unnecessary and often sexist. In most cases, generic terms such as doctor, judge, or actor include both genders. Only occasionally are alternate forms needed, and in these cases, the alternate form replaces both the masculine and the feminine titles and makes the writing nonsexist.

stewardess flight attendant
authoress author
male nurse nurse
woman doctor doctor

Note: If the gender of a professional is important to a person seeking professional assistance, exceptions may occur. For example, a woman may prefer to visit a gynecologist who is a female. In such cases, the effects of gender labeling can be mitigated by changing the gender-laden descriptor to a noun, emphasizing the professional title, and de-emphasizing gender, i. e., a woman who is a doctor rather than woman doctor; a male who is a nurse rather than male nurse.

B. Seek gender-neutral alternatives to language that omits, patronizes, or trivializes women, as well as to language that reinforces sexist or stereotyped images of both women and men.
I'll have my girl do that job. I'll ask my assistant (or secretary) to do that job.
The ladies on the committee all supported the bill. The women on the committee supported the bill.
This is a man-sized job. This is a complex (huge, enormous, difficult) job.

C. Treat women and men in a parallel manner to keep writing gender-fair.
The reading list included Jane Austen, Joyce, Proust, and Virginia Woolf. The reading list included Austen, Joyce, Proust, and Woolf (or Jane Austen, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf).
The steward seated Mr. Clinton and his lovely wife Hillary. The steward seated Mr. and Mrs. Clinton.

D. Use nonsexist courtesy titles that promote gender equity. Courtesy titles that label a woman in regard to her relationship to a man (her marital status) or forms of address that depict a woman as the mere appendage of her husband trivialize women or render them invisible.
Miss, Mrs. Ms.
Mrs. Michael Webber Ms. Olivia Webber

Note: The use of Ms.
Too often, people substitute Ms. for Miss and keep using Mrs. for married women, defeating the original purpose of adopting Ms. to create an equitable form of address for all women regardless of marital status. Use Ms. for married as well as unmarried women for truly gender neutral writing.

E. Do not label athletic teams according to gender.
girl pitcher or lady pitcher pitcher
the Lady Cardinals the Cardinals

4. Gender Stereotypes: Strategies for Reducing Sexism and Negative Effects

Gender stereotypes limit and trivialize both females and males, presenting an inaccurate view of the world and its possibilities. Such sexist misrepresentations constrain communication.

A. Do not represent certain jobs or roles as only appropriate for, or held by, women or men, i.e., farmers are men and elementary teachers are women. Doing so makes gender-based assumptions. When referring to a job or role, use a gender-specific pronoun only if the gender of the person is known. Keep all references gender-neutral.

Dear Mothers, Please bake cookies for our class party. Dear Families, Please bake cookies for our class party.
NCTE convention attendees and their wives are invited. NCTE convention attendees and their guests are invited.

B. Do not represent females and males as possessing stereotypic gendered attributes. For example, do not always imply gender specific traits such as:
  • girls are timid and boys are brave
  • males are admired for their accomplishments and women for their physical attributes
  • females are passive and males are active.

5. Textual Citations: Reducing the Effects of Language That Is Not Gender-Fair

When citing from texts, make a choice whether to use a directly stated passage or a paraphrase of the wording if you feel the language is sexist. Quoted passages cannot be altered, but there are a number of options for making language more inclusive and gender-neutral when passages are dated and/or contain nonequitable language.

a. Recast the material, changing a direct quotation that might contain sexist language into a paraphrase that fits the sense of the discussion and retains the original author's intent and idea while being gender neutral.

b. Point out the gender-biased nature of the passage to defuse its power. Thomas Jefferson stated, "All men are created equal." Of course, had he written during current times, he surely would have said all people are created equal.

c. Make substantial revisions or deletions when language is sexist or gender-biased, or when stereotyped assumptions about males and females pervade a passage.

d. If none of these options work, consider avoiding the passage altogether whenever doing so does not detract from the writing's content, tone, or purpose.

6. Implications of the Guidelines

a. Balancing the Representation of Females and Males

As important as language is, making minor changes in vocabulary and usage to achieve gender fairness is virtually futile if underlying assumptions about gender restrict the people represented in texts to traditional roles. Simply changing cavemen to cave dweller or actress to actor will do little to promote gender fairness when female voices are absent or underrepresented in texts. Attempts must be made to provide nonsexist gender balance through the careful selection of materials.

  1. A balance of literature by and about both women and men should be included whenever possible.
  2. Materials should be chosen to emphasize gender equity and to show males and females in traditional and nontraditional roles.
  3. Noninclusive texts and classic pieces can provide a focus for discussion of gender roles and gender equity. They should be placed in proper historical context and should be balanced by other texts that show gender-fair roles and assumptions.
  4. Trade books, texts, videos, and other media resources should be chosen to show females and males actively participating in a variety of gender neutral situations at home, work, or play.
  5. In organizing lists of materials and educational activities, avoid separation by gender. Choose gender-neutral headings and activities that do not assume stereotypic male and female interests. For example, use nonsexist categories such as exploration or friendship rather than books for boys or women's videos. Avoid promoting competition of girls against boys, i.e., girls vs. boys in a spelling bee; a debate with males taking one side of the issue, females the other. Avoid assuming gendered interests and abilities, i.e., girls decorate the bulletin board, boys boot up the computer, girls are cheerleaders, boys play sports.
  6. Present gender-neutral examples by alternating male and female names and by avoiding the use of stereotyped gender roles. When discussing roles traditionally held by males, use examples of females in those roles; use examples of males in roles traditionally held by females.

b. Promoting Gender-Fair Discourse Practices

  1. Praise, encourage, and respond to contributions of females and males equally.
  2. Call on females as often as males to answer both factual and complex questions.
  3. Create a gender neutral classroom atmosphere where females are not interrupted by others more often than males.
  4. Establish collaborative groups composed of both males and females to provide opportunities for all voices to be heard.
  5. Value intellect; avoid sexist references to appearance and physical attributes.
  6. Choose females for leadership positions as often as males.
  7. Avoid comments or humor that demean or stereotype males or females. Keep them gender-neutral.

Now let's use myWriterTools to make your document gender-neutral

Step 1 - Select GenderBender: First, open the myWriterTools menu and select the Gender Bender tool.

Step 2 - Check the word list: Click on the 'Gender word list' tab in the Gender Bender dialog. This displays the list of gender related words used by the tool to improve your documents. As there is debate over the actual list of words that should be changed in gender-neutral documents, you can alter this list to fit your guidelines. There are several things you can do on this screen:

  1. Delete words you do not want to use by highlighting the word and clicking on the X button at the top right.
  2. Temporarily exclude gender related words you do not want to include by clicking on the checkbox in the first column to remove the checkmark inside the box. These words will not be used in the Analyze or Find and Replace steps.
  3. Change/add gender neutral words to existing words. You can double-click on an existing word to make changes to the word. You can add new gender neutral words for replacement by separating them with a semi-colon.
  4. Add new words by clicking on the button that has a plus symbol.
  5. Change the type of existing gender-neutral words by double-clicking on them to edit. There are 4 types you can use: 1: Professions (like policeman); 2: Pronouns (like he); 3: Specific References (like mother or man-year); and 4:Skip these phrases for words or phrases that are acceptable and should be marked to be ignored.

Step 3 - Analyze: Click on the 'Analyze' tab in the Gender Bender dialog. Select the categories that you want to search by checking or unchecking the checkbox. Selecting 'Pronouns' will result in many matches since it searches for common gender words like he, she, etc. so it should normally be used only when correcting manuals and similar documents. When ready, press the 'Analyze Now' button.


Step 4 - Analysis Results: Once the gender analysis finishes, which may take a while depending on the length of the document, you will see the results on this screen. You can click on the 'See Results' button in each category to see which gender related words were found. If you see words in the list that you do not have to replace, remove the checkbox in the first column. They will be ignored when you run the next step. When ready, select the 'Find and Replace' tab.


Step 5 - Find and Replace: On the 'Find and Replace' tab, press the 'Start Search' button. The document will be searched, sentence by sentence, for words that were found in the Analysis step. The found word will be highlighted and you can choose how to handle it. The box in the middle will have more information about how to change the text to be more gender neutral or nonsexist.

  1. Press Ignore once or Ignore all to skip this word one time or for the entire document.
  2. Pick the gender-neutral replacement word from the dropdown list and click on either Replace or Replace all.
  3. Type a new word in the 'Replace with' box and press Replace or Replace all.
  4. Click directly on the document and make your changes there. When ready, press 'Ignore once'.

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More Info



Links to more information about gender-neutral language

Gender-neutral Language Practical advice for students from their English professor, Dennis G. Jerz.

UNESCO Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language. A PDF file of UN standards about gender-neutral language.

Books related to gender-neutral and nonsexist writing

The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing
by Kate Swift and Casey Miller




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Perfect for manuals and documents that must be gender neutral. This is required for many government publications. Use myWriterTools GenderBender to find and fix improper gender language. More information about running GenderBender to make your writing gender neutral.

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