GUIDELINES FOR THE USE OF NON-SEXIST LANGUAGE
Psychologists have made a substantial contribution to documenting sexism in the structure and use of the English language. Research has refuted the belief that gender-specific terms are invariably interpreted by the reader as generic and in particular, that the male form includes the female. These and other conventions have been shown to reflect and reinforce sex-role stereotypes, and the weight of the evidence is sufficient to justify the effort entailed in writing non-sexist prose.
Help the reader to focus on the content of your paper by avoiding language that may cause irritation, flights of thought, or even momentary interruptions. Such sources of distraction include linguistic devices and constructions that may imply sexual, ethnic or other kinds of bias.
Language that reinforces sexism can spring from subtle errors in research design, inaccurate interpretation or imprecise word choices. An investigator may unintentionally introduce bias into the researech design: for example by using stimulus materials and measures that suggest to one sex or to the other what responses are “appropriate”; or, in interpretation, an investigator may make unwarranted generalisations about both men and women from data about one sex. Imprecise word choices, which occur frequently in journal writing, may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning, even if they are not intended to be.
Sexism in journal writing may be classified into two categories: problems of designation and problem of evaluation. When you refer to a person or persons, choose words that are accurate, clear and free from bias. Long-established cultural practice can exert a powerful, insidious influence over even the most conscientious author. For example, the use of “man” as a generic noun can be ambiguous and may convey an implicit message that women are of secondary importance. You can choose nouns, pronouns and adjectives to eliminate, or at least to minimise, the possibility of ambiguity in sex identity or sex role. In the examples, problems of designation are divided into two sub-categories: “ambiguity of referent”, when it is unclear whether the author means one sex or both sexes and “stereotyping” when the writing conveys unsupported or biased connotations about sex roles and identity.
Scientific writing, as an extension of science, should be free of implied or irrelevant evaluation of the sexes. Difficulties may derive from the habitual use of cliches or familiar expressions, such as “man and wife”. The use of “man” and “wife” together implies differences in the freedom and activities of each and may inappropriately prompt the reader to evaluate the roles. Thus “husband and wife” and “man and woman” are parallel but “man and wife” are not. In the examples below problems of evaluation, like problems of designation, are divided into “ambiguity of referent” and “stereotyping”.
The task of changing language may seem awkward at first. Nevertheless, careful attention to meaning and practice in rephrasing will overcome any initial difficulty. The result of such effort, and the purpose of the guidelines, is accurate, unbiased communication.
Examples of common usage
Problems of designation: ambiguity of referent
1 The client is usually the best judge of the value of his counselling.
The client is usually the best judge of the value of counselling. (Comment: his deleted).
The client is usually the best judge of the value of his or her counselling. (Comment: or her added — use sparingly to avoid monotonous repetition).
Clients are usually the best judges of the value of the counselling. (Comment: changed to plural).
The best judge of the value of counselling is usually the client. (Comment: rephrased).
2 Man’s search for knowledge has led him into ways of learning that bear examination.
The search for knowledge has led us into ways of learning that bear examination. (Comment: rephrased in first person).
People have continually sought knowledge. The search has lead them into ways of learning that bear examination. (Comment: changed to plural and rewritten in two sentences).
3 man, mankind
people, humanity, human beings, humankind, human species
human achievements, achievements of the human species
the average man
the average person, people in general
man a project
staff a project, hire personnel, employ staff
user-system interface, person-system interface, human-machine interface
work force, personnel, workers, human resources
(Comment: various terms substituted for each example).
4 males, females
men, women, boys, girls, adults, children, adolescents (Comment: specific nouns reduce the possibility of stereotype bias and often clarify discussion. Use male and female as adjectives where appropriate and relevant (female experimenter, male subject). Avoid unparallel usage as 10 men and 16 females).
parenting, nurturing (or specify exact behaviour) (Comment: noun substituted).
6 chairman, chairperson, chairwoman
Problems of evaluation: ambiguity of referent
7 The authors acknowledge the assistance of Mrs John Smith
The authors acknowledge the assistance of Jane Smith (Comment: use given names).
8 men and women, sons and daughters, boys and girls, husbands and wives
women and men, daughters and sons, girls and boys, wives and husbands (Comment: vary the order of content does not require traditional order).
9 ambitious men and aggressive women
ambitious women and men, ambitious people
aggressive men and women, aggressive people
cautious men and timid women
cautious women and men, cautious people
timid men and women, timid people
(Comment: some adjectives, depending on whether the person described is a man or woman connote bias. The examples illustrate some common usages that may not always convey exact meaning when paired).
10 woman driver
(Comment: if specifying sex is necessary, avoid biased cliches. Use female driver or write “The driver was a woman”).
11 women’s lib, women’s libber
women’s movement, feminist, support of women’s movement
(Comment: noun substituted).
Like language that may be interpreted as sexist, language that may be construed as ethnically biased can be classified into problems of evaluation. Styles and preferences for nouns referring to ethnic groups change over time. In some cases, even members of a group disagree about the preferred name at a specific time. You should try to ascertain the most acceptable current terms and use them. Consideration for your audience should prevail.
The majority of instances of implied irrelevant evaluation seem to occur when the writer uses one group (usually the writer’s own group) as the standard against which others are assessed. Unfortunately, the basis for negative comparisons is usually established during the planning of the research, for example, by the choice of empirical measures.
At the writing stage, avoid language that suggests evaluation. An example of implied evaluation is found in the term “culturally deprived” when it is used to describe a single group rather than to compare two or more groups. Using the term to describe one group of subjects without the supporting data required in scientific writing implies that one culture is a universally accepted standard against which others are judged. As a test of implied evaluation, substitute another group (eg your own) for the group being discussed. If you are offended by the revised statement, there is probably bias in the original statement.