Gender Inclusive Language

By January 13, 2011Writing about Writing

Something that I noticed after completing my first quarter as a writing center tutor was the prevalence of gender biased language. I found it difficult to comment on the cases that I saw, because while technically ‘correct’, gender biased language is something that I believe should be changed when discovered. I found myself bringing the language to the writer’s attention by beginning, “While this is technically grammatically correct, I would consider changing the ‘mankind’ you have written here to ‘humankind.’ The way it is written now you are excluding women from the world’s population.” I noticed that some writer’s would change their language, and some wouldn’t, and I thought about different ways to make people aware of gender-biased language.

After doing a little research, I found that gender-biased language doesn’t impact only women, but other populations of people as well. An online resource that I found particularly helpful was put out by the Honolulu County Committee on the status of Women. They have some common ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ that apply not only to women, but minorities and people with disabilities.

Some suggestions I found particularly interesting and important were to not gender positions: chairMAN or houseWIFE should always be chairperson or chair, and caregiver, parent, or spouse. Additionally, commonly used terms such as sportsMANship should be changed to fair playing or team attitude. The way that words are written can make plenty of assumptions, and writers should be concious of this.

While this online resource makes reference to inclusive language towards people with disabilities, People First Language (PFL) is a more complete resource to utilize. According to ‘Disability is Natural’, “People First Language (PFL) represents more respectful, accurate ways of communicating. People with disabilities are not their diagnoses or disabilities; they are people first.”

Examples of PFL would include saying ‘People with disabilites’ instead of ‘The handicapped.’ Always remember that people come first; remember to write ‘She has a learning disability’ instead of ‘She’s learning disabled.’

While I’m still unsure as to how to address gender inclusive language in the writing center when it isn’t technically incorrect, I will continue to be aware of it, and bring it to the attention of the writers that I work with. I hope that everyone will be more aware of all inclusive language and integrate it in to their tutoring sessions!

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • joeo235 says:

    Thanks for creating awareness about this important issue and posting helpful resources.

  • Geneva says:

    We might consider what constitutes “technically correct.” Something can be grammatically correct, but wrong by other standards. Current guidelines in some citations styles, and this is in the latest APA I believe, say that gender inclusive language should be used. So it may be a case of saying, “Grammatically, this works, but if you are following X style, you should consider using humankind instead, because…” Generally, though, since we teach writers to be accurate as possible in other arenas, the effort should be made here, too. Leaving out one gender or referring to people by outmoded terms, besides having obvious other issues, just isn’t as accurate. Also, it’s shakier bet these days, to assume your audience will be fine with biased language.

  • I am not sure I agree about the “correctness” of terms like “mankind.” Style manuals, which often arbitrate “correctness” in academic and professional settings, address the faultiness of gender biased writing. The APA, for example, devotes sections of its style manual to avoiding non-inclusive language (for a sample see Likewise, the AMA manual addresses language bias on pp. 412-417 in its 10th edition. So I think you are on solid ground–grammatically, semantically, and socially when you point out non-inclusive phrasing to students. The fact that the sentence can be parsed doesn’t necessary mean that it is “correct.” Thanks for your good work.

    • Mia Amélie says:

      @ Cheryl Prentice & Geneva:

      I did not remember that citation styles often address inclusive language until you both reminded me. It’s good to know that style guides promote inclusive language, which is certainly a point that I will bring up when encouraging awareness of the words we choose to use when working with fellow writers and peers.