Using Gender-Inclusive Language at the Workplace

“To have a boom, you have to keep your nose clean legally…”1 —L. Ron Hubbard
We live and work in a diversely populated world. With no harm intended, people often inadvertently include sexist language in their writing and speech (i.e., language that tends to evoke a male image). For example, picture a mailman; a policeman; a fireman; a chairman; a salesman; a businessman. What is the gender of the person that first comes to mind? The same effect occurs with the use of the male pronoun. “An employee must swipe his timecard daily upon arrival.” “No one is permitted to eat his lunch in the large conference room.” What is the gender of the employees you picture in these situations? Our society recognizes that employment decisions should be based on merit, and not on gender or other characteristics unrelated to ability. Old concepts die hard, however. Picture a doctor treating a patient, a judge on the bench. Although these words, themselves, are not gender based, many of us still picture a man first. What follows can be an unconscious preference for the man because he “looks right” for the job, while women are selected for different roles based on other gender stereotypes. Therefore, the concept behind avoiding sexist language is to let women populate your literature, as they do your workplace. Avoiding sexist language is not difficult, if you follow a few simple guidelines:


1. Include “her”: An easy fix to a stand-alone male pronoun is to simply include the female by inserting “she” or “her.” This can be cumbersome in complex sentences, but sometimes it is all you need. Consider this example: “When an employee reaches retirement age, he or she will be entitled to certain benefits.” Avoid using “he/she,” however, or “s/he” in written documents. They are awkward and detract from the flow of your writing.

2. Use plurals: Since plural pronouns (they, them) are non-gender related, pluralizing often solves the problem. For example, consider stating “employees must swipe their time cards upon arrival.” Do not, however, use the grammatically incorrect “them” in place of “he” without pluralizing the accompanying noun. For example: “Note the date on an employee’s card when they are late.” It should be “employees’.”

3. Be Neutral: Instead of “he,” use “one.” For example: “One must swipe a card.”

4. Use second-person (you): In some instances, where appropriate, use of the second person (you) instead of the third-person (he, she) also eliminates problematic language. For example, an employee procedure handbook could read “you must swipe your timecard daily upon arrival.”

5. Use the passive voice: Most writing guide-books frown upon using what is called the “passive voice.” This is merely a situation where the focus of the sentence becomes the object receiving the action, instead of the person performing the action. For example, instead of saying “Jack caught the bus,” the user of the passive voice would say “the bus was caught by Jack.” This construction can be wordy at times, yet, if cautiously used, can also help you out of a sexist-language situation. For example, you might say “lunch is not permitted to be eaten in the large conference room.”

6. Avoid use of the word “man” by itself or as a prefix or suffix: We now understand that the phrases “Peace on earth, good will towards men” and “All men are created equal” are meant to apply to all people, not just those of the male gender. At the time those phrases were coined, however, the status of women was something less than desirable and women were not, in fact treated equally under the law or otherwise. Indeed, women only acquired the right to vote in U.S. federal elections in 1920, and then only by constitutional amendment. This article is not intended as a history lesson in the status of women, but such information underlies the reasoning for eliminating the use of the word “man,” by itself, or as a prefix or suffix, when the reference is to both men and women.

I do not recommend simply always inserting “people” or “person” in the place of “men” or “man,” however, as some of those results are just plain silly. For example, a “people-hole” instead of a “manhole.” In that case, “work hole” will suit. Other suggested substitutions are as follows:

Common Word Suggested Substitution
Mankind, man/men Humanity, human; men and women
man-hours Work-hours; staff hours
a manned booth a staffed booth
manpower work power; staff
manmade synthetic

For job titles or other categories which end in “man” sometimes inserting “person” instead is appropriate, but more often there is a better alternative. Here are some suggestions:

Policeman Police Officer
Fireman Fire Fighter
Salesman Sales Representative; Sales Associate
Chairman Chairperson, Chair
Businessman Business Professional
Mailman Mail Carrier
Workman Worker

(Note that many states have already changed the name of employee on-the-job injury insurance from “Workman’s Compensation” to “Workers’ Compensation.”)

7. Use “Ms.” correctly: “Ms.” was created as a form of address to provide for women, as “Mr.” does for men, a polite title that does not indicate their marital status. A woman’s marital status is totally irrelevant in the workplace. Using “Ms.” only in the place of “Miss,” however, defeats this purpose. For example: “We welcome our new sales associates: Mr. James Joseph, Ms. Regina Parks, Ms. Janet Harris and Mrs. Sophie Buckman.” In this example, can you tell who is married and who isn’t? Whose marital status is unknown?

Eliminating sexist language from your speech and writing may not be easy at first. Nevertheless, it is an important goal and a simple, cost-free way to generate good will for your company or organization. Sexist language often offends female executives, buyers, employees, representatives and potential members—people who make decisions about your company, your organization, your products, and you.

As L. Ron Hubbard once said:

“Throughout all races, ‘bad manners’ are condemned.

“Those with ‘bad manners’ are REJECTED.

“Thus the primary technology of public relations was ‘manners.’”2

Therefore, it is worth the effort. Do not let women be invisible. Follow these steps to develop an inclusive style which can win goodwill for you, your staff and your organization as a whole.

1. Article of 1 September, 1965 2. Article of 30 May, 1971 _______________________

Translate »
Share This