Tips for Academic Writing without Gender or Sex Bias
Avoiding bias is extremely important in modern scholarship, which tends to be written for an international audience consisting of a wide variety of readers, yet gender or sexist bias remains a problem in some academic and scientific texts. Usually the offence is unintentional and the result of an author neglecting to choose his or her language with enough care. Language that is clear, accurate and precise will almost always solve the problem.

Bias can occur, for instance, when the gender-specific pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ are used inaccurately or carelessly. Their use is straightforward and unproblematic when referring specifically to a male or female person, but when ‘a person’ is used more generally or hypothetically to refer to anyone, whether male or female, the situation becomes more complicated. ‘He’ was once used as a neutral pronoun in such cases, as in ‘When a person is learning to write, he requires sound examples,’ but that is no longer considered acceptable. ‘She’ is now used as neutral by some authors, but that really just inverts rather than solving the problem. A better choice is the singular pronoun ‘one,’ which is suitably neutral but can sound artificial to some writers and readers. ‘He or she’ or ‘she or he’ is another good choice, but these can come across as awkward, especially if used frequently, so careful wording is required to avoid overuse.

Some writers who are uncomfortable with using ‘one,’ ‘she and he’ or ‘he or she’ argue that the pronoun ‘they’ is an acceptable non-gender-specific substitute for the singular forms, as in ‘When a person is learning to write, they require sound examples.’ However, ‘they’ is plural, so it is neither correct nor appropriate for referring to singular nouns, and using it as though it were can quickly become extremely confusing. When using ‘a person,’ ‘an individual’ or a similar term, you need a singular pronoun or some form of phrasing that maintains the singular nature of the subject while avoiding bias: ‘When a person is learning to write, he or she requires sound examples’ or ‘When an individual is learning to write, that person requires sound examples.’ Only if the noun is plural can the plural pronoun be appropriate: ‘When students are learning to write, they require sound examples.’

Bias is also a problem when the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are used too loosely and with implications that do not reflect reality. If, for instance, an author refers to doctors as men but nurses as women without specifying the context and details that justify such an unbalanced treatment, it may not be a deliberate distinction, but it will come across to readers as both inaccurate and biassed. It is therefore essential to reflect on any instances in which you mention men or women alone. If women are the only subjects of the study or if women alone are relevant for a particular statement (only women can actually bear children, for instance), using ‘women’ alone is appropriate, but if both men and women are involved (both men and women can be parents, for example), both should be mentioned or an alternative that implies both (such as ‘parents,’ ‘people’ or ‘participants’) should be used.