British Sociological Association ~ Equality & Diversity ~ Sex and Gender [April 2004]
Language and the BSA: Sex and Gender
The BSA grants free non-commercial use and non-commercial photocopying rights of these guidelines, to promote good practice; we only ask that you acknowledge the BSA when you publish them.
It is BSA policy that non-sexist language should be used in its journals, in conference papers and in the delivery of such papers at conferences and so on.
The following guidelines are intended to assist BSA members in avoiding sexist language by showing people some of the forms it takes and by suggesting non-sexist alternatives. Language and terminology are changeable and contested. Words can reinforce beliefs and prejudices, but can also be used to challenge sexism. As such, it must be recognised that the meaning of these terms will be subject to revision and/or change at a faster rate than these or any other guidelines or sources may be issued.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list or a definitive guide.
These guidelines should act as a prompt to social scientists and others to consider carefully their choice of terminology and to consider the extent to which and the ways in which we either challenge or reproduce inaccurate, sexist and heterosexist assumptions in our work. The guidelines will be relevant to teachers, students and authors in sociology.
Do not use 'man' to mean humanity in general. There are alternatives: Sexist - man/mankind, mankind; Non-sexist - person, people, human beings men & women humanity humankind.
When references to both sexes is intended, a large number of phrases use the word man or other masculine equivalents (e.g., 'father') and a large number of nouns use the suffix 'man', thereby excluding women from the picture we present of the world. These should be replaced by more precise non-sexist alternatives as listed below:
man in the street layman
the rights of man
to a man
the working man
models of man
one man show
Dear Sirs Disseminate
people in general, people
lay person, non-expert
synthetic artificial manufactured peoples'/citizens' rights; the rights of the individual
workforce staff, labour force, employees craftsperson/people
staffing, working, running
everyone, unanimously, without exception workhours
worker, working people
models of the person
one person show
police officer/ fire-fighter
domineering; very skilful
broadcast, inform, publicise
The 'generic' 'man' is often accompanied by the 'generic' 'he'. The 'generic he' should be avoided. Both feminine and masculine pronouns can be used where appropriate: he/she, s/he, his/her, etc. Alternative strategies include the use of the plural, and the omission of third person pronouns entirely:
(A) SEXIST: Each respondent was asked whether he wished to participate in the survey.
NON-SEXIST: Respondents were asked whether they wished to participate in the survey.
(B) SEXIST: The child should be given ample time to familiarise himself with the test material.
NON-SEXIST: Ample time should be allowed for the child to become familiar with the test material.
Sexist language, apart from being offensive, may also mislead the reader, since it is frequently ambiguous. For example, the use of 'he/man' language in a discussion about people may suggest that the circumstances of the whole group are under consideration until statements like the following make it clear that the group or the people are in fact men only: "hardly a week goes by without an 'untouchable' is murdered or his house is burned or his wife is raped”.
When by 'he', 'men', etc. you do actually mean only men, it is advisable to make this explicit. 'Male managers' or 'men executives' is less ambiguous than 'businessmen' which is either used 'generically' or with the implicit assumption that all business personnel are male. Such careful, non-sexist use of language helps in avoiding the mistake of referring to, e.g., 'managers and their wives'. Women managers do not have wives!
The words 'boys' and 'gentlemen' are rarely used to refer to men in written work or speech. Nevertheless, women continue to be referred to or spoken to as if they were a 'breed apart', e.g., 'mere women' 'ladies' and/or as if they had not yet reached adulthood.
The use of such terms is often patronising and offensive and should be avoided. In written work it is inaccurate to write 'young girls' when one is referring to teenage young women. In speech, terms like 'love' and 'dear' also frequently cause offence and should similarly be avoided.
It is important to remember that whilst many of the words used to describe men are positive, words used to describe women often have (some) negative connotations. Examples here include bachelor and spinster; sir and madam. Some of the worst insults directed towards men make reference to women (e.g. ‘old woman’, ‘son-of-bitch’) and some of the most offensive (directed at women and men) refer to women’s genitalia.
The above guidelines are intended to encourage respect for women and to 'make women visible' in our work.
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