Sunday, February 22, 2009

Avoid sexism, you guys!

Prejudice affects both men and women. However, sexism as a form of prejudice in our language discriminates more against women than men. This problem has historical and political roots. You need not be told that for years women were kept out of certain occupations and roles. Today, however, we find women in the police force, the postal service and the infantry, among other previously male-dominated professions. For this reason, we need to use a vocabulary that reflects the important role women play in society.

Over the years our language has, unfortunately, relied on words such as these: policeman, infantryman, chairman, postman, fisherman, guys, and the like. People who use these terms are considered not just sexist but unfair, insensitive, uninformed and archaic. Obviously, we are best served to understand how words like these show prejudice against others and to avoid using them.

Consider the following list and ask yourself if the words are sexist: Mankind, Modern Man, Brotherhood of Man, Forefathers, Housewife, Poetess, Old Maid, and Working Man. It doesn’t require much thinking to know that these words reveal sexist thinking. Sometimes, however, sexist references are more subtle. Look at these sentences:

Each man should be sure that his secretary does her work well.
He studies to be a male nurse.
Last week the city fathers voted to close saloons on Sunday.
Our Constitution tells us that all men are created equal.
God has promised his people a place in Heaven.

Much sexist writing is subtle. An “aggressive man” is not typically considered a negative comment; however, the term “aggressive woman” is often pejorative. Imagine a scenario where a visitor to an architectural firm tells the woman he first meets that he wants to speak to an architect. Keep in mind that not all women and in architectural firms are secretaries (and not all nurses are women). Indeed, if you are sensitive to this issue, you will easily be able to answer this riddle: How could the baseball game have had a score of 5-3 when not a man reached first base the entire game?

When we write, we must understand how to use pronouns, word endings, nouns, titles, salutations, signatures, modifiers, and names. When using pronouns, you may use “he or she” and “him or her” sparingly. You may change words from singular to plural to avoid sexism (“An individual may check HIS credit records” becomes “Individuals may check THEIR credit records”.) You may repeat nouns (The driver must maintain a safe speed. He must also…” becomes “The driver must maintain a safe speed. The driver must also….”) The writer may use “you” when appropriate (“A client must check with his account manager” becomes “As a client, you are responsible to check with your account manager”.) You may also alternate the use of "he" and "she" when writing a long passage.

Word endings such as –ess and ette create other problems. Other than waitress, actress and hostess, you may omit these endings from most words. For nouns, use person instead of man, as in salesperson. For titles, avoid Mrs. and Miss; use Ms instead. These constitute just some of the forms you can use to be certain that you are not using language that demeans or discriminates. To make sure that you are not using sexist language, look for further instruction in this subject. And, hey guys, keep your eyes open for sexist language!

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