Dissertation Writing Tips: Use Gender Neutral Language

A recognized feature of good modern writing is the use of gender neutral language. This means avoiding the use of male terms when the person about whom you are writing could just as easily be a woman as a man. The use of ‘he’ when referring to judges, lawyers, students or any group of people is seen as reinforcing gender stereotyping of certain groups. The old convention that the term ‘he’ also included ‘she’ is no longer regarded as acceptable in many quarters.

The use of a plural rather than a singular will often enable the gender neutral personal pronoun ‘their’ to be used. So: Lawyers are products of their background. is preferable to A lawyer is the product of his background. But it is increasingly common (and The Oxford Guide to the English Language reports the usage as going back five centuries!) for the plural pronoun to be used since English has no singular pronoun to denote common gender. This can produce inelegant sentences. So, some would regard A lawyer is the product of their background as odd. In this case using ‘lawyers’ in the plural avoids the inelegant language. A further alternative would be A lawyer is the product of his or her background.

This usage is unwieldy if repeated too often, but its occasional use can be effective in showing the reader that the writer is aware that lawyers are just as likely to be women as men. Obviously, there will be occasions where the use of the singular pronoun is appropriate: Everyone in the women’s movement has had her own experience of sex discrimination. When creating examples to illustrate your argument, think whether all your examples from a particular group are men or women. A good piece of writing will reflect a growing concern with gender equality at all levels of our lives.