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How do you sidestep gender bias in your writing?

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Question: “The whole he/she issue when writing something that doesn’t apply to a named person still confuses me. Some people get irritated when you choose one gender over the other even when you’re just writing about a hypothetical situation, but the phrase ‘he or she’ sounds silly and awkward when it has to be used too often. What’s the best way to get around this problem?” Eric, Admissions Advisor

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Judy W March 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Like Lisa, I have been uncomfortable using the plural “their” when referring to one person, although it’s common in speech, of course. However, I have also read that the usage is now considered acceptable, and since it is much easier, I have begun to use it more often.

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Nina March 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Great suggestions, everyone! I sometimes struggle to find the right format, i.e. whether to use plural, passive voice, etc. instead. If only we were talking about Finnish, there wouldn’t be an issue at all. In Finnish, there is only one uniform he/she: hän!

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Jenni March 1, 2013 at 11:44 am

Many different titles may be used in the same document to refer to people such as “individual”, “person”, “employees”, etc. You could also try using passive voice, i.e. “The form must be submitted to a supervisor for approval prior to the employee’s absence.” Using both tools sounds professional and avoids the he/she issue altogether.

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Gloria March 1, 2013 at 9:59 am

To have your audience remain focused on the message, try to focus on using another description as a whole unit instead of he or she which separates groups. Ex. Team or Department Members, Techs, Reps, Users, Individuals, etc. Using he or she is really outdated in business when referring to a group of individuals and reflects poorly on the writer or speaker because it suggests an underlying prejudice towards one *** over another, without necessarily meaning to. There are many other ways to refer to a group of individuals.

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Kathy Sandy March 1, 2013 at 8:37 am

If I need to avoid it, I try and put the discussion into the plural so I can use they, their, them, etc. If that doesn’t work, I do what Karen does and use a neutral subject/object. However, I work for the regional council of a national organization whose mission is to provide leadership opportunities for girls (and women). I make no apologies for using “she” as the primary reference, and she/he when I must.

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Joan February 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm

I have seen “s/he” used where “he or she” would normally be written. I also tend to use Karen’s examples: “the user”, “the employee” or “the person” just because it helps to keep the message focused on the overall meaning or point being conveyed.

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Karen February 28, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I try to use “he or she”, “him or her” as little as possible but sometimes it’s just unavoidable. “Their” is out because that’s plural. Try using generic nouns in your writing, for example “the user”, “the candidate”, “the employee”, “the person”, etc. it’s a good time to use that synonym feature.

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Julie Vaughn February 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm

In my humble opinion, we’re all equal human beings, no matter what the gender label is. There are many more things to worry about than whether the person who eventually fills a role is properly “labeled” prior to knowledge of their gender. This could be a very long and treacherous road nowadays anyway. Pick one and get on to other things.

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Lisa P March 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Depending on the document in question, gender neutrality could be crucial. If the document is HR/personnel related, using one gender or the other could set your employer up for a discrimination suit.

I generally stick to Karen’s examples of generic nouns or the passive voice when I can. If I can’t avoid it, I just go ahead and use he/she, his/her, etc. I have read that using their as gender neutral singular is becoming more acceptable, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

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