Academic writing and research is becoming an increasingly globalized practice, and because of the Internet, journals are able to quickly and easily accept papers and studies from researchers around the world.
A challenge for English as a Second Language (ESL) writers is that it is standard for many academic journals to publish in English, meaning that the original research must be revised and sometimes even translated into natural-sounding English. With research arriving from such a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds, keeping the language in these studies free from gender bias has become an important part of the academic writing process.
What is gender bias?
Gender bias is a form of sexism that indicates that one gender is superior to another—most often that men are superior to women. Often, writing with gender bias is unintentional; using gender-neutral wording may require some extra thought or attention to detail for academic authors who aren’t accustomed to thinking in such terms.
Awareness of gender bias in writing is relatively recent, and it logically stands to increase as the number of female academics continues to climb in many countries.
Why does gender neutrality matter?
In the broadest sense, language is an integral part of human society and interaction, and how we use language both subtly and pervasively influences the way people perceive and understand the world.
In terms of gender, women in research-driven online communities, such as Wikipedia, have indicated that the use of male-centered language leads to feelings of inadequacy and experiences of misogyny and harassment. It can foster non-inclusive environments in which women may feel that their point of view is not perceived to be as valid as their male counterparts’.
In turn, this can lead to fewer women contributing to research in various fields, and whether or not people realize it, female authorship still has an effect on how content is received. It’s common knowledge that even famous female fiction writers, such as J.K. Rowling, have been asked to use a gender-neutral pen name to increase readership among both males and females.
One area of academic writing in which gender bias and inequality is pervasive is the sciences. A study by the journal Nature analyzed over 5,000,000 academic articles published from 2008 to 2012 to determine the ratio of female to male authorship. Despite the fact that female enrollment in the sciences is higher than male enrollment in many countries, this was not reflected in research output. Nature found that, for every article published with primary authorship attributed to a woman, there were two attributed to men. A female’s academic writing was also less likely to be cited in other works if the author’s name was obviously that of a woman.
What this means is that, despite the fact that women are becoming a dominant force in many scientific fields, a lot of their contributions are unrecognized by the wider scientific community, which still favors inequality and male perspectives.
Politically, gender equality in language is backed by legislation in many countries and by the United Nations, who insist that gender-neutral language is a professional responsibility. In Canada, all laws must be drafted using gender-neutral language whenever both genders are being referred to, because laws that do not reference the female gender do not support equality.
How to avoid gender-biased language in your academic writing
1. Swap out gender-specific terms for gender-neutral terms.
The most prevalent form of gender bias in academic writing is the use of gender-specific words when both genders are involved. Many of these words can easily be made neutral:
2. Don’t use male pronouns when talking about individuals in mixed-gender groups.
Both native English-speaking and ESL writers, when referring to groups that contain both genders or when referring to someone whose gender is unknown, commonly use male pronouns. The important thing to remember is that he, him, his, or himself are not all-encompassing terms for individual group members, who may be either female or male. To write in this way is disrespectful, inaccurate, and dismissive toward women, regardless of whether the author consciously realized this while he or she was writing. Instead of saying something like, “The student may bring his own books to class,” say, “The student may bring her or his own books to class.”
3. Restructure singular pronouns, and make them plural: they, them, their, or themselves.
To avoid the repetitiveness of using him or her constantly, the sentence can also be restructured to make the pronouns plural, using they, their, them, or themselves. The important thing to remember when using this method of gender-neutral writing is that the entire sentence should agree with the plural form of the pronoun. For example:
Each of the players had their picture taken with the gold medals.
This sentence is incorrect because each is singular and does not agree with their. Instead, the sentence should be written as follows:
All of the players had their pictures taken with the gold medals.
Here, the sentence is restructured using the plural term all and now agrees grammatically.
4. Replace a pronoun with a definite article.
To avoid the use of gendered terms altogether, many times the pronoun can be replaced with the indefinite or definite articles a(n) or the. An example would be:
The employee complained in his report that the chairs in the office were not ergonomically correct.
The employee complained in a report that the chairs in the office were not ergonomically correct.
5. Repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun.
This method can be repetitive and sound formal, but both problems are better than promoting gender bias in your academic writing. Instead of using a pronoun, rewrite the noun phrase:
The professor can revoke the grade, but he cannot expel a student from the class.
The professor can revoke the grade, but the professor cannot expel a student from the class.
As you can see, gender bias in academic writing is an important issue that deserves every writer’s attention. The best way to avoid gender bias in your writing is to put effort into being intentional about your words. Yes, striving to be “politically correct” can be a hassle, but the root of this goal is thoughtfulness and sensitivity to others—an objective that is worth spending your time pursuing.
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