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Shifts in Context: Avoiding Gender Bias

One the main reasons for shifts in number in English is due to our effort to avoid gender bias in our writing. Here is a sentence showing gender bias:

The teacher told each of the students which topic he should study.

In most situations, not all students will be male, but the pronoun "he" is biased in favor of male students. In trying to avoid such bias, developing writers end up writing grammatically incorrect sentences, such as

The teacher told each of the students which topic they should study.

Such shifts in number to avoid gender bias have become so commonplace that they are almost, but not quite, accepted as standard English.  And while we may get away with these shifts in conversation, in academic writing it is a good idea to learn grammatically correct techniques for avoiding gender bias.

Technique 1: Switch to plural forms:

For example "a student" becomes "students," "a leader" becomes "leaders," "the successful candidate" becomes "successful candidates."  Take a look at the following corrections of gender bias:

Bias: Everyone should keep in mind her duties as well as her rights.
Corrected: We should all keep in mind our duties as well as our rights.

Bias: Each dancer should select his partner and then move her to the dance floor.
Corrected: Dancers should select their partners and then move them to the dance floor.

Technique 2: Eliminate Pronouns

Bias: Everyone should keep in mind her duties as well as her rights.
Corrected: Keep duties and rights in mind.

Bias: Each dancer should select his partner and then move her to the dance floor.
Corrected: Dancers should select partners and move to the dance floor.

Technique 3: Use "his or her"

This strategy is the least attractive since it can disrupt the natural flow of the sentence.  Therefore, use this construction sparingly in your writing.

Bias: Everyone should keep in mind her duties as well as her rights.
Corrected: Everyone should keep in mind his or her duties as well as his or her rights.

Bias: Each dancer should select his partner and then move her to the dance floor.
Corrected: Each dancer should select his or her partner and then move her or him to the dance floor.

Technique 4: Alter Habitual Gender Associations

Certain professions and activities are strongly associated with particular genders. When writing about these topics, choosing pronouns to indicate the gender not associated with that profession or activity helps remove gender bias.  For example,

An engineer works long hours; she will often find herself at the office till well after dinner time to finish a project.

Every cook has his favorite cookbook.

 

 

 

 
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