Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

Non-Sexist Language Guidelines

The following suggestions were prepared by the UTK Commission for Women as part of a continuing effort to make the University community aware of the many subtle ways in which traditional language can enforce a subtle sexism. The University does not and cannot impose uniformity of thought or of expression upon its faculty and students. At the same time, it is an abiding and even venerable mission of the University to challenge dull conventions and stereotypes both in language and in thought wherever they appear.

Sexism refers to discrimination on the basis of gender or sex. Sexist language reflects and creates discrimination. Since language is the basis for thought, sexist language is not only an indicator of but also a contributor to sexist attitudes and behavior. Thus, removal of sexual discrimination in language is necessary to eliminate sexism.

In all University settings, members of the University community should:

  1. Use gender equivalent construction. Equivalent or parallel construction should be used for males and females. Thus, if males are referred to as “men,” females should be referred to as “women,” not as “girls” or “ladies.”
  2. Use alternatives to the masculine singular pronoun for generic singular. The masculine singular pronoun traditionally has been used as the generic singular. Such usage fails to acknowledge the participation of women in human activity unless they are specifically identified. Alternatives to the use of “he,” “him,” and “his” for the generic singular are he/she, she/he, her/him, him/her, hers/his, his/hers or one’s. Some individuals may prefer to alternate the use of the male and female singular pronoun to indicate generic singular. While some alternatives may seem awkward when they are first used, they become comfortable with usage and will, as any other language construction, become second nature in time. It is this natural incorporation of women into language on an equal basis with men that is the purpose of non-sexist language usage.
  3. Use person-oriented rather than gender-oriented words. Words which clearly refer to both sexes should be used in preference to words and titles which omit one sex. The terms, human(s), humankind, people, persons, individuals, humanity, or men/women should be used rather than the terms man or mankind. For example, a course titled “Man and Civilization” could be retitled “Humanity and Civilization;” reference to “mankind’s development” could read “human development,” and so forth.
  4. Use person-oriented job and occupational titles. Many titles were developed by attaching “man” as a suffix to the job or occupation. Alternatives to such titles should be utilized, such as: chair, head, presiding officer, (not chairman); mail carrier (not mailman) etc.
  5. Avoid sex-role stereotyping: provide parallel treatment of women and men.
    1. Women (as well as men) should be described on the basis of relevant characteristics rather than on the basis of gender.
    2. Jobs, tasks, and behaviors should not be characterized in a stereotypical fashion on the basis of sex. Avoid identifying all doctors, lawyers, pilots, researchers, and the like as males while identifying all secretaries, nurses, flight attendants, and cooks as women.
  6. Exhibit non-patronizing, non-condescending ways of describing and addressing women, particularly women in traditional occupations, e.g., secretaries, clerks, nurses. Both men and women should be sensitized to the negative effects which result from usage of terms such as “girl,” “gal,” “coed,” “girl Friday,” the “girls in the office,” and the like.


“Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language,” American Psychologist (June l975): 682-4.

“Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE Publications,” National Council of Teachers of English.

“Proposed Styles and Policies for the Elimination of Sex-Bias in the Media,” The Washington Press Club.

“Sexism in Language — A Deterrent to Equality,” Tennessee Commission on the Status of Women.