Themes > Legal English > Sexism in language
Sexism in language

Sexism is a political issue today. It affects the language we choose to use. Many people speaking or writing English today wish to avoid using language which supports unfair or untrue attitudes to a particular sex, usually women.

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon he uttered a memorable sentence: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." If he had landed on the moon in the mid-'90s no doubt he would have said a much more politically correct sentence: "That's one small step for a person, one giant leap for humankind." Less poetic but certainly more literally representative of the whole of the human race!

Certain language can help to reinforce the idea of male superiority and female inferiority. What is now termed "sexist" language often suggests an inherent male dominance and superiority in many fields of life. Male pronouns, he, his and him are used automatically even though the sex of the person is not known. "A student may wish to ask his tutor about his course". Or we say, "Who's manning the office today?"

At work there is a tendency to associate certain jobs with men or women. For example, "A director must be committed to the well-being of his company." but "A nurse is expected to show her devotion by working long hours." In addition, job names often include reference to the sex of the person: "We're employing some new workmen on the project." "I'm talking to a group of businessmen next Friday." "The chairman cannot vote." "He is a male nurse" "I have a woman doctor." The use of such words tends to reinforce the idea that it is not normal for women to be in professional, highly-paid, technical and manual jobs. Also, that it is not natural for a man to work in such a caring (and generally poorly-paid) role as that of a nurse.

So how can this bias in the language be reduced? Look at the box below for some suggestions:

1. Avoid unnecessary male pronouns by using plural pronouns "they", "them", etc.

" Someone has left their briefcase behind."
"If anyone phones, tell them I am in a meeting."

2. Replace male pronouns with combinations such as "she or he", "him or her", "her or his".*

" A fashion model is usually obsessive about her or his diet."
"The journalist must be accurate when she or he reports interviews."
(* these combinations can sound rather awkward. They should not be repeated often in a piece of writing or conversation. The written form s/he, he/she, her/him is acceptable.)

3. Use other words when referring to both men and women.

" People are ..."
"Human beings must protect ..."
"Who's staffing the office?"

4. Use expressions or pronouns that do not support sexist assumptions about jobs.

" Teachers must not be late for their classes."
"A chairperson should be fair to all her or his colleagues."

5. Use job names that apply equally to men and women.

" The chairperson handed out notes of the last meeting."
"Mary is a very experienced camera operator."
"James is a nurse and Barbara is a doctor."
"We offer language courses for business people."

Over the last few years, changes in the role of women - and men - in society have made much sexist language out -of-date. Native speakers of English are slowly adjusting to the pressures for a more neutral language. Fortunately, this change is being accompanied by a measure of humour, which, fortunately, is common to both sexes!


Reading for meaning

When you read an article, you can often guess the words you do not know from the context.

Find words or expressions in the above article which have the following meanings:

a. said
b. large jump
c. completely truthful
d. essential / natural
e. trend
f. kind and helpful
g. an often unfair or irrational tendency in favour of something
h. clumsy
i. impartial
   


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