How to avoid biased language that could offend your audience

As a blog reader, do you notice biased or sexist references? Does it offend you if you are female and a post refers to only “he”? How can you avoid biased and sexist words in your own writing?

I saw an online post that made a couple of sexist references. The post was about grammar, and it said to have someone else proofread your copy, and “he” will help find your errors. In another sentence, the article referred to “businessmen, executives and marketing people.”

Biased-language

Be careful of biased and sexist language. You don’t want to offend your audience.

The problem with these references is that they’re biased and exclusive. In today’s culture, writers need to be sensitive to all groups of people. This especially true for bloggers, whose work may be seen worldwide. You never know who might read your blog.

The first step of the solution is to be sensitive to all of your potential readers. The second step is to think of non-biased ways to write.

The writer I referred to in the first paragraph could have done a couple of things to avoid any biased errors. First, instead of saying “he will help find your errors,” a simple solution is to write: “Have someone else proofread your copy, and he or she will help you find errors.” It’s worth a couple of extra words to include everyone in your audience.

Second, in this writer’s reference to “businessmen, executives and marketing people,” the problem is with businessmen, which is an outdated term. Unless you’re sure a group consists of only male business professionals, a better term is “business people.” The best solution for this writer would be to write: “business executives and marketing people.”

I saw another biased example a few days ago in a blog post about building a mailing list. Near the beginning of the post, I noticed this sentence: “Unfortunately, some bloggers and online businessmen are yet to start building a list.”

I quit reading. I thought: If you’re not going to include my gender in your post, why should I finish reading it? This excluded me because I am a woman, and on my way to becoming an online businesswoman. The blog author may have had useful tips, but I will move on to an author who doesn’t exclude my gender.

In this example, instead of the term “online businessmen,” some solutions are to call all of us online entrepreneurs or professional bloggers.

Male-oriented words are only one form of bias. Other areas to be careful of are racism, ageism, cultural bias, sexual orientation, religious groups and people with disabilities.

Bias can also crop up when it comes to professions that have traditionally been dominated by one gender. A few examples of ways to avoid male- or female-oriented references are to say firefighter instead of fireman, server instead of waiter or waitress, flight attendant instead of stewardess, and postal carrier instead of mailman.

You should avoid biased language in your writing. Biased language raises the possibility that you could offend and alienate your audience. We bloggers need all the readers we can get, and we can’t alienate our audience.

Readers, have you encountered any biases online that have offended you? Do you think twice about avoiding bias in your posts?

Comments

How to avoid biased language that could offend your audience — 16 Comments

  1. Hello Jennifer.

    You are true that if a post is not addressing me as a female, surly I will not read that and if I feel being alienated . But sometimes we have to consider the intention of writer. May be writer was not so careful while writing and just by the way choose such words.

    As far I am concerned , normally I address problems of women in south east Asia but I try to address all in audience. But I have learned a lot from this post. Sometimes I alternate between he and she but now I will try to use he or she. Thank you for bringing this mistake in notice.

  2. I know gender and sexiest biases can be bad. In my blog I try to put a disclaimer at the beginning of an article saying why I am calling out women or men in the examples that I come up with. I will try to pay attention to see if I can catch myself so that you will read my entire article. Thanks for sharing

  3. I try to be gender neutral and sometimes change the entire way a sentence is phrased to do that. Using “he or she” a lot can sound cumbersome, so I will sometimes use she and other times he if I cannot reword the phrase satisfactorily to avoid that. I don’t get offended by the use of he in articles unless the rest of the article suggests a gender bias.

  4. Hi Jennifer,
    I had already formulated in my mind appropriate words such as executives or business persons. I think it only requires a small degree of extra consideration to be more thoughtful.

    As a former radio show host, I saw the transition of a number of words deemed to be sexist or inappropriate undergo changes. One such example is the word harassment, now enunciated to sound like Harris-ment. The wrong emphasis on the first two syllables is considered sexist and is taboo.

    The written word, however, should be taken in context with the writer’s style and audience.

    Kind Regards,
    Bill

    • Hi, Bill. That’s very interesting about the pronunciation of harassment. I had not heard that! I still say it har-ASS-ment. But then, I have a print journalism background and not broadcast, so I’m more aware of sexist and biased words in print than on the air. Why is har-ASS-ment considered sexist and taboo? Is it because the most emphasized syllable is “ass”? (I notice that I have to capitalize it for my phonetic spelling!)

  5. I usually alternate between he and she. One thing that people do these days is to use “they” but I really don’t like that because often it takes the place of a singular pronoun and doesn’t sound good.

    • Beth, I’m glad you touched on using “they.” Our language really doesn’t have a great solution to the gender problem, which is why this discussion comes up. I will try when I can to pluralize the entire sentence, which makes it both gender neutral and grammatically correct. Or I’ll use “he or she” or “someone” like Welli said. I have heard of people alternating between he and she. I personally don’t do that because I would probably lose track, but it’s another good solution.

  6. Interesting Jen. But I do not read with a gender frame. I try to get the point of the article more than the gender refence used. In my own articles I try and use words like “someone” “a person” rather than gender specify. Come to think of it, I do not do it for the sake of being gender correct, but it is just the way I write.

    • If the point of the article is good enough, I can look past the gender reference as well. I like your solution of using “someone” or “a person.” That’s a good way to write around the problem.

  7. Hi Jennifer, I fully understand the viewpoint but in many cases those extra two or three words can become very cumbersome when the content requires their repetition numerous times. Frequently I alternate between he or she and leave readers to judge whether or not I am biased or sexist based on the totality of what they read.If some are sufficiently pc to come to the wrong conclusion I would rather live with that than burden the rest with excess verbiage. I serve up enough of that already !

  8. As a middle aged woman, (geesh I hate how that sounds lol) I really don’t take ‘personal’ offense in how an article is written with the ‘he’ or ‘she’. Maybe it is an ‘age’ thing.

    I agree that women are just as capable of doing the same things as men but I certainly would not take offence just because my gender was not mentioned in an article. I think sometimes women are too sensitive (I am sure I am going to have a backlash on that comment)

    I don’t want to get into a debate of politically correct, but I think today it sometimes is taken to the extreme :)

    Do you know that in most languages that objects are either female, male or neuter, just saying :)

    • I don’t get too offended, either, if the point of the article is good. I worry that members of my audience might be offended, which is why I think it’s important. And I agree that sometimes, people are too sensitive!

      Yes, I remember way back when I took high school Spanish that there were male and female nouns. My husband studies Latin, and it has male, female and neuter nouns.

  9. Hi Jennifer
    You know, I think this may be something I need to watch. I’m from the old school where we as women had little influence and all the literature referred to ‘he’. I’m going to start watching for this in my own writing. Thanks for pointing this out.
    Lenie

  10. Hi Jennifer; I don’t know if the post in question was biased or not without having rad it. I do know for my own use I try to be gender neutral even though the amusement industry is still a mostly male dominated business. One of my most often used lines is showman and women. I doubt the author who wrote the post you referred to intended to be sexist, but we really can’t afford to take that chance. thanks for sharing and take care, max

  11. I see where you are coming from Jennifer and if an article did intentionally disregard a gender then I would agree whole-heartedly with you. But let me ask you this. Do you think that maybe, today, certain words, cover both genders? For example Guys can easily refer to both male and female. I think maybe what should be considered is the intention of the writer and not a hard and fast application on a rule. I agree that “he” is not an example of a dual gender word. Just my 2 cents. Thanks for a good read. Tim

    • Good question, Tim. I don’t think we really have a good word that covers both genders. “Guys” as you mention could work, but it strikes me as very casual. It might work in casual dialogue or a very casual blog post, but for most writing purposes, it’s too casual. I agree that the writer’s intention and tone should be considered. If you’re writing a blog casual enough that “guys” works, go for it.