Although non-sexist language is becoming the norm, it may help to review some of the major issues and guidelines involved in avoiding sexist talk. These may be especially helpful to those for whom English is a second language.
Individual sexism consists of prejudicial attitudes and beliefs about men or women based on rigid beliefs about gender roles. These might include such beliefs as the idea that women should be caretakers, should be sensitive at all times, and should acquiesce to a man’s decisions concerning political or financial matters. Or, as in a recent television sitcom, men should purchase the electronics. Sexist attitudes would also include the beliefs that men are insensitive, interested only in sex, and incapable of communicating feelings.
Institutional sexism, on the other hand, results from customs and practices that discriminate against people because of their gender. Clear examples in business and industry are the widespread practice of paying women less than men for the same job and the discrimination against women in the upper levels of management. Another clear example of institutionalized sexism is the courts’ practice of automatically or near-automatically granting child custody to the mother rather than the father.
Of particular interest here is sexist language: language that puts down someone because of his or her gender (a term usually used to refer to language derogatory toward women). The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has proposed guidelines for nonsexist (gender-free, gender-neutral, or sex-fair) language. These guidelines concern the use of the generic word man, the use of generic he and his, and sex-role stereotyping. Consider your own communication behavior. Examine your own language for such examples of sexism as these:
< use of man generically. Using the term to refer to humanity in general emphasizes maleness at the expense of femaleness. Gender-neutral terms can easily be substituted. Instead of “mankind,” say “humanity,” “people,” or “human beings.” Similarly, the use of terms such as policeman or fireman that presume maleness as the norm—and femaleness as a deviation from this norm—are clear and common examples of sexist language.
< use of he and his as generic. Instead, you can alternate pronouns or restructure your sentences to eliminate any reference to gender. For example, the NCTE Guidelines suggest that instead of saying, “The average student is worried about his grades,” you say, “The average student is worried about grades.”
< use of sex-role stereotyping. When you make the hypothetical elementary school teacher female and the college professor male or refer to doctors as male and nurses as female, you’re sex-role stereotyping, as you are when you include the sex of a professional with terms such as “woman doctor” or “male nurse.”
Generally, the term girl should be used only to refer to very young females and is equivalent to boy. Girl is never used to refer to a grown woman, nor is boy used to refer to people in blue-collar positions, as it once was. Lady is negatively evaluated by many because it connotes the stereotype of the prim and proper woman. Woman or young woman is preferred. The term ma’am, originally an honorific used to show respect, is probably best avoided since today it’s often used as a verbal tag to comment (indirectly) on the woman’s age or marital status.
Transgendered people (people who identify themselves as members of the sex opposite to the one they were assigned at birth and who may be gay or straight, male or female) are addressed according to their self-identified sex. Thus, if the person identifies herself as a woman, then the feminine name and pronouns are used—regardless of the person’s biological sex. If the person identifies himself as a man, then the masculine name and pronouns are used.
Transvestites (people who prefer—always, frequently, or just sometimes—to dress in the clothing of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth and who may be gay or straight, male or female) are addressed on the basis of their clothing. If the person is dressed as a woman—regardless
of the birth-assigned sex—she is referred to and addressed with feminine pronouns and feminine name. If the person is dressed as a man—regardless of the birth-assigned sex—he is referred to and addressed with masculine pronouns and masculine name.