How to avoid using gendered language in writing

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Although these words were written in 1776, they still resonate with many today. But looking at the text of the Declaration of Independence through a modern lens, it’s not hard to spot a rather large problem: the Founding Fathers left out about 50% of the population.

Why is it important to avoid gendered language in business communication?

Being inclusive means considering a number of factors as they relate to your colleagues, coworkers, and clients—race, sexuality, and age, to name a few. Each factor is becoming increasingly important as businesses (and businessowners) become more diverse.

Business was once almost exclusively the domain of men, but no more. According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, more than 11.6 million firms are owned by women; women-owned businesses generate $1.7 trillion in sales each year; and women-owned businesses employ nearly nine million people.

In addition, more and more businesses are owned by (or employ) individuals who are non-binary or genderfluid. With so much diversity in the workplace, there is no good reason for your professional writing to be stuck in the 18th century.

So how do I write without using gendered language?

The bad news is you might have to break some long-standing habits and form some new ones. The good news is, you probably already incorporate some tactics that reduce gender bias, whether you intended to or not!

Use “they/them/theirs”

Just to jog your memory, pronouns are words like “she” or “him” that take the place of a person’s name. The English language doesn’t have a gender-neutral version, but it’s become perfectly acceptable in recent years (even according to style manuals such as Chicago and Associated Press) to use “they” or “them” or “theirs” as a substitute. The nice thing about using they/them/theirs is they can help you say something more quickly and in a more inclusive way. In fact, you might already be using them just to save time and keystrokes. Here’s an example:

Gendered language:

When he or she calls the office, please transfer him or her to me.

Gender-neutral language:

When they call the office, please transfer them to me.

When communicating with an individual, it’s important to use their preferred pronoun. If you are making initial contact with someone and are unsure of which pronoun to use, one way to find out is to share your own pronouns, thus offering an invitation for them to share as well. Check out this example from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University:

Hello, my name is [insert], and my pronouns are she/her/hershe/him/his; or they/them/theirs; etc.

Watch out for words with “man”

All sorts of nouns are based around the word “man,” and pretty much all of them should set off alarm bells if you want to be gender-inclusive. Instead of man-made, say “artificial” or “synthetic”. There are all sorts of examples, but here are some good ones compiled by The Writing Center at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill:

Instead of this… Use this:
man person, individual
man-made machine-made, synthetic, artificial
the common man the average person
chairman chair, chairperson, coordinator, head
actor, actress actor
congressman legislator, congressional representative
Sir (in “Dear Sir,” etc.) Dear Sir or Madam, Dear Editor, Dear Members of the Search Committee, To Whom it May Concern

Being gender-inclusive in your writing isn’t a huge undertaking; it’s just a matter of being a little more thoughtful and intentional every time you click the “Compose” button.

Need more help with inclusion?

We hope these tips will help you feel more confident in your business communication. If you feel as though your business would benefit from more training on inclusion and diversity—or if you would like to know how to evaluate how inclusive your business is—reach out to us using this handy form or the contact information below. We’d love to hear from you!

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