Sex versus gender identification has developed through the onset of women’s studies classes and the continuing force of feminism. There is a difference between an individual’s sex (biological) and the person’s gender (a social construction based on sex). Our understanding of “to be a man” is different than “to be a male.” To be a male denotes having a chromosomal makeup of X and Y while females have only X. To be a man is to exhibit socially desirable traits usually associated with males (trust, strength, ability to get the job done, powerful, etc.). Are not these traits also desirable in the female of the species?
Sexism in the English language may be difficult to recognize because it is so embedded in our speech. Advocates of gender-neutral language are making an impact that started most recently in the business environment. More women perform jobs formerly thought as being handled only by the males of the species (airplane captain, ranch foreperson, automobile designer). “Man” is reverting into the context of a sexual male and not a generic word for mankind or humans.
What does it mean to have a gender-neutral language? Gender-neutral terms apply to “someone” and “anyone” versus just to a woman or a man. Continuing to use sexist language supports bias and implies irrelevant gender classification and negative stereotypes. Thinking only women can be nurses and only men can be electricians is outmoded.
Business manuals and job titles are pushing this change. “Best man for the job,” “workmen,” “waitress” and “freshman” are being replaced by “best person for the job,” “workers,” “server” and “first year student.” Instead of “The programmer should use his laptop for…” try using “The programmer should use a laptop until the end of the month.” Instead of “Men must store their tools in their lockers,” substitute “Workers must store their tools in their lockers."
For pronoun use, “s/he” is going out of favor. Instead, alternate “he” and “she” throughout the article or manual. An author may choose to use a single pronoun throughout but should then include a disclaimer stating that the article is intended to be gender neutral.
- Use plural nouns
- Substitute one, you or us
- Write Dear Professor, Dear Editor, or Dear Loren Thames instead of Dear Sir or Madam
- Do not stereotype roles or jobs
- Research in-house guidelines and follow them
- Edit your work specifically for gender bias
I can hear you saying “But…” If your novel is set in an earlier time, use the common practice for pronouns and language that matches the era and the locale of your work.