Although a few (nutty) people continue to debate the issue, most business writers agree that it’s inappropriate to use gendered pronouns such as “he” and “his” when discussing individuals of both sexes. Instead, you can:
Rephrase the sentence. Change “The employee should bring his application to HR” to “Employees should bring their applications to HR” or “Applications should be brought to HR.”
Replace the pronoun with an article. The employee can also bring the application to HR. Similarly, “Each runner should drop the timing chip in the basket.”
Use the second person. “Bring your application to HR” and “Drop your timing chip in the basket.”
Replace the pronoun with a nounsuch as “person,” “child,” etc.
I would also stay away from awkward constructions like “s/he” and “him/her,” as well as sentences that alternate “he” and “she.” These terms distract the reader and keep the focus on gender rather than nonspecific personhood.
Pronouns aside, most words that have been deemed sexist now have gender-neutral equivalents. Examples include:
House cleaner instead of cleaning lady
Firefighter instead of fireman
Flight attendant instead of stewardess (I’m dating myself here)
Mail carrier instead of mailman
People instead of mankind
Personnel instead of manpower
Police officer instead of policeman
Principal instead of headmaster
Representative or spokesperson instead of spokesman
Synthetic or machine-made instead of man-made
You can also use server instead of waiter/waitress, but avoid goofy non-words like “waitron.”
There are also more subtle ways of showing gender bias. Do you tend to describe men in terms of professional status or title, but women in terms of personal status or temperament? For instance, “The writers’ panel features Josh Groshen, author of “Dads Rock!,” and time-juggling single mom Andrea Cathcart.”
Descriptions that emphasize appearance are equally suspect. It’s fine to describe Secretary of State Clinton’s “blush-pink dress and sparkling earrings,” but only if you give equal time to President Obama’s “navy-blue suit and gleaming silver tie.” Subjective judgments on appearance are never appropriate, whether they refer to her stylish haircut or the bags under his eyes.
Oh, and don’t call her Hillary unless he’s going by Barack.
Another danger zone is the gratuitous modifier, e.g. male nurse, male secretary, female astronaut or (now we’re really dating ourselves) lady doctor. These terms evolved when alternative-gender members of the profession were so rare that the name itself implied a gender. Now they’re just offensive.
Sometimes a “gender-fair” term may sound awkward—for instance, calling members of the House of Representatives “congresspeople.” But it’s not that difficult to find an alternative that works (try “members of Congress”), and I believe it’s worth the effort.
Some gender-biased terms are still open for discussion. Frankly, I’m not sure why.
“Do we really need to call our boss the chairwoman?” groaned a former colleague. My answer: “Well, Steve, as long as we can call you the ‘directress,’ I guess we can call Helen the ‘chairman.'”
We went with “chair.”
Deborah Gaines is a business writer and former law firm CMO who blogs as The Corporate Writer.