Gender symbols

The language of gender

It's very important to make sure that you don't offend people by inadvertently using language that might be considered sexist. In recent decades, some previously established words and expressions have come to be seen as discriminating against women - either because they are based on male terminology (e.g. businessman, postman) or because they appear to give women a status that is less important than the male equivalent (e.g. actor/actress; steward/stewardess).

Here are some general guidelines to be aware of when you are thinking about which word to use.

  • When there is a choice between a word which specifies a person's gender and a word which doesn't, you should choose the neutral one unless their gender is relevant to the context. For example, in general situations it's best to choose chair or chairperson instead of chairman, or head teacher instead of headmaster/headmistress. On the other hand, it would sound rather forced to say, for example, ‘he was a shrewd businessperson’ instead of ‘he was a shrewd businessman’.

  • In some cases, the term which previously applied exclusively to men is now used to refer to both men and women. This is because the female form has developed negative associations which the male form does not have. For example, the words authoress or poetess are no longer very commonly used to describe female authors and poets, and it's becoming increasingly common to use actor to refer to both men and women.

  • If you want to refer to humanity in general, use phrases such as the human race or humankind rather than mankind.

  • When you are talking about one or more people of either gender, it's important to use language which includes both men and women and makes no distinction between them. This can be tricky when it comes to choosing pronouns, as there isn't an English personal pronoun that can refer to someone without identifying whether that person is male or female. For more information about this, see the following section on gender-neutral language.

Gender-neutral language

Nowadays, it's often very important to use language which implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women, making no distinction between the two different genders. This can be tricky when it comes to pronouns. In English, a person's gender is explicit in the third person singular pronouns (i.e. he, she, his, hers, etc.). There are no personal pronouns that can refer to someone (as opposed to something) without identifying whether that person is male or female. So, what should you do in sentences such as these:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, ? can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in ? findings.

In the past, people unquestioningly used the pronouns he, him, his, and himself in this sort of situation:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, he can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in his findings.

This approach is now seen as outdated and sexist. There are other options which allow you to arrive at a ‘gender-neutral’ solution, as follows:

  • you can use the wording ‘he or she’, ‘his or her’, etc.:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, he or she can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in his or her findings.

This can work well, as long as you don't have to keep repeating ‘he or she’, ‘his or her’, etc. throughout a piece of writing.

  • you can make the relevant noun plural, rewording the sentence as necessary:

If your children are thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

Researchers have to be completely objective in their findings.

This approach can be a good solution, but it won't always be possible.

  • You can use the plural pronouns they, them, their, etc., despite the fact that they are referring back to a singular noun:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in their findings.

Some people object to this use on the grounds that it's ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn't new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It's increasingly common in current English and is now gaining wider acceptance in both writing and speech.

Here are some guidelines about specific words or types of word which can cause offence because they are felt to be sexist.

Nouns ending in -ess

The ending (or suffix) -ess has been used since the Middle Ages to form nouns referring to women or girls, using a male or neutral noun as the base word. Examples include host/hostess, actor/actress, heir/heiress, manager/manageress, and poet/poetess.

In the late 20th century, people started to view many of these feminine forms as old-fashioned, sexist, and patronizing. As a result, the ‘male’ form is now increasingly used as a gender-neutral noun: the gender of the person concerned no longer needs to be specified because it's seen as irrelevant. Some of the -ess forms are now rarely if ever used (e.g. poetess or editress) but others are still current. These tend to fall into one of these four categories:

  • the -ess noun refers to someone who is in fact very different from the supposed male equivalent. For example:

    mayoress

    the wife of a mayor (not a female mayor)

    governess

    a kind of private teacher (not a female governor)

    manageress

    a female manager of a shop or restaurant but not of a football club

  • the -ess form is a fixed title, e.g. princess

  • the male equivalent word is spelled differently, e.g. abbot/abbess, duke/duchess, marquess, marchioness

  • the male ‘equivalent’ is no longer used, e.g. seamstress, seductress

Nouns ending in -ette

This feminine ending was first recorded at the beginning of the 20th century, in the word suffragette. Since then, it's been used to form only a handful of well-established words, such as usherette, or drum majorette. The current trend is to use words which are gender-neutral, which has meant that new words formed with the feminine -ette ending are usually deliberately humorous or flippant, for example bimbette, punkette, or ladette.

girl

You should be cautious about using the word girl to refer to an adult woman. Some people object to it on the grounds that it reduces women to the status of children, ignoring their maturity in terms of age or experience.

  • In general, it's best to avoid using compound nouns such as newsgirl, weather girl, or career girl. Choose gender-neutral terms instead, e.g. newsreader.

  • Avoid using the word girl to refer to any woman in a particular job or role. For example, you should say ‘the woman who works in the shop’ rather than ‘the girl who works in the shop’ (unless of course she really is a girl!).

man, -man

Nowadays, many people object to the use of the word man to refer to all human beings, regardless of gender, as in the following sentence:

Over the centuries, people have tried to build bridges that will withstand the ravages of man and nature.

There is a historical reason for this meaning. In Old English, the main sense of the word man was ‘a human being’: the words wer and wif were used to refer specifically to ‘a male person’ and ‘a female person’. Eventually, man replaced wer as the normal term for ‘a male person’ but the older meaning of ‘a human being’ remained in use.

In the second half of the 20th century, this older use began to seem old-fashioned and sexist, and it's now best to avoid it wherever possible. Here's a short list of suitable alternatives for some of the most commonly used terms:

older usage newer usage
mankind humankind, the human race, humanity
man human beings, the human race
the man in the street the person in the street, the average person, ordinary people

In one or two cases, e.g. manpower or the verb man, there are many possible alternatives, depending on the exact context. You could replace manpower with, for example, staff, employees, or workers. For example:

The shortage of skilled manpower/staff/workers/employees was cited as a serious problem

In place of the verb ‘to man’, you could use operate, run, or staff, e.g.:

Community groups and organizations manned/ran the stalls.

The helpline is manned/operated by trained staff.

People also object to the use of the ending -man in words referring to professions and roles in society, for example postman, spokesman, or chairman. Since women are generally as likely as men to be involved in an occupation or activity nowadays, this type of word is increasingly being replaced by gender-neutral terms, e.g. postal worker, spokesperson, or chair/chairperson.

Here's a list of various professions and roles whose names traditionally incorporate the ending -man, together with suggested alternatives:

older usage newer usage
plural businessman
businessperson businesspeople
barman bar tender
bar tenders, bar staff *chairman
chair, chairperson chairs, chairpersons
clergyman vicar, priest
the clergy craftsman
craftsperson craftspeople
dustman refuse collector
refuse collectors fireman
firefighter firefighters
layman layperson
laypeople, the laity policeman
police officer police officers
salesman salesperson
salespeople, sales staff spokesman
spokesperson spokespeople
sportsman sportsperson
sportspeople tradesman
tradesperson tradespeople

 

The use of -person as a gender-neutral alternative to -man in words referring to occupations and roles in society is a relatively new development in the English language. It began in the 1970s when the word chairperson was first used as a replacement for chairman.

As the list above shows, we haven't seen a wholesale substitution of -person for -man in this type of noun. We don't talk about ‘police person’, for example, nor a ‘fire person’ or a ‘dust person’. In all these cases, a new term altogether has emerged as the gender-neutral alternative, i.e. police officer, firefighter, and refuse collector.

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