LEOLEO: Literacy Education Online

Avoiding Gender Bias in Pronouns


"Biased language can cause your reader to focus on how you say something rather than what you say. If your language is free of bias, it should offend no one; ideally, no one should even notice that you have made an effort to reduce sexually biased words and phrases." [1]


Achieving unbiased language so that readers will concentrate on what you have to say rather than how you say it is an admirable goal. It's also, I might add, a necessity. For example, businesses and individuals have been sued because job descriptions used "he" and seemed to exclude women -- whether or not the exclusion was intended. Therefore, gender free language is a requirement of the workplace and the university.

It may be easy to avoid gender-biased nouns by replacing sexist nouns with more neutral ones: chairman with chair, mailman with paper carrier, and congressman with senator or representative. But how can you avoid the pronouns he, him, and his when you refer to nouns meant to include both genders?

The following five options will enable you to revise your writing so that your use of pronouns is both gender-free and correct. As you review this list, compare the biased language of the original sentences with the gender-free phrasing of the revisions.

  1. Use the plural form for both nouns and pronouns.

    Biased Language
    Studying the techniques by which a celebrated writer achieved his success can stimulate any writer faced with similar problems.
    Gender-free Language
    Studying the techniques by which celebrated writers achieved their success can stimulate any writer faced with similar problems.


  2. Omit the pronoun altogether.

    Biased Language
    Each doctor should send one of his nurses to the workshop.
    Gender-free Language
    Each doctor should send a nurse to the workshop.


  3. Use his or her, he/she, or s/he when you occasionally need to stress the action of an individual. Such references won't be awkward unless they're frequent.

    Biased Language
    If you must use a technical term he may not understand, explain it..
    Gender-free Language
    If you must use a technical term he or she may not understand, explain it.

    If you must use a technical term he/she may not understand, explain it.


  4. Vary pronoun choice when you want to give examples emphasizing the action of an individual. Ideally, choose pronouns that work counter to prevailing stereotypes. Growing Child Newsletter (1982) decided to use this strategy throughout its publication, which focused on children's developmental levels.

    Biased Language
    Gradually, Toddler will see the resemblance between block creations and objects in his world, and he will begin to name some structures, like "house," "choo choo," and "chimney."
    Gender-free Language
    Gradually, Toddler will see the resemblance between block creations and objects in her world, and she will begin to name some structures, like "house," "choo choo," and "chimney."
    Biased Language
    The kitchen can serve as a center for new experiences, an interesting place where important things happen, and where she has a chance to learn about the way big-people things are done.
    Gender-free Language
    The kitchen can serve as a center for new experiences, an interesting place where important things happen, and where he has a chance to learn about the way big-people things are done.


  5. Switch from the third-person (he) to the second-person (you) or a (you) understood when this shift is appropriate for what you're writing.

    Biased Language
    Each manager should report his progress to the undersigned by May 1.
    Gender-free Language
    You should report your progress to me by May 1.

    Report your progress to me by May 1.


© 1995-2005 The Write Place

LEO: Literacy Education Online
This page was written by Sharon Cogdill and Judith Kilborn for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

The quotation at the beginning of this handout was taken from Jameson, Daphne A. "Reducing Sexually Biased Language in Business Communication." In Readings in Business Communication. Ed. by Robert D. Gieselman. Champaign, IL: Stipes, 1979, 170-178.

Updated: 12 January 2005

http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/style/genderbias.html