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2. Do's and Dont's of Gender-Marking in Nouns

Several issues occur in gender-marked nouns. Among the words that refer to occupations there are some that can either enforce an already existing stereotype or bring a diminishing connotation to the meaning. General recommendation in this case would be to avoid gender-marking and only use it symmetrically when gender is relevant to the topic. Another problem that gender-marked nouns create is the gender binary, which doesn't reflect the breadth and complexity of gender identities that go beyond female and male. This issue is also relevant for the way people are addressed, as in ladies and gentlemen or Dear Sir/Madam. Many family-related terms exclude non-heterosexual relationships and can be replaced with a neutral equivalent. Below you can find more information on all the mentioned issues with examples of gender-neutral wording.

Historically, the efforts of turning English into a more gender-sensitive language have been caused by the lack of visibility for women in the professional world. Many words that described occupations contained the suffix -man because these professional fields were at some point almost exclusively held by men. Consider words like businessmanchairman, or policeman. Even though most of these professional fields are not predominantly male anymore, some of these words are still used when referring to people of different genders. Some linguists call this type of word “male-biased” or “gender-biased”. In this particular context, by male or gender bias, they mean an at most times unconscious implicit belief that an undefined person is a man. This conflation of men with humanity was proven by multiple psycholinguistic experiments: most people imagine a man when seeing a title of a profession containing this particular suffix, especially if the occupation is stereotypically held by men, i.e. fireman. This contradicts the assumption that the suffix -man is inclusive to all genders.

Exposure to gender stereotypes can have a significant impact on thoughts and behaviors. This influence has motivated society to develop standards eliminating bias and to avoid practices contributing to this bias. One such standard is to eliminate gender-biased language, particularly language containing the suffix -man, and to replace it with more gender-neutral terms.

Feminine gender markers in nouns such as suffixes –ess, -enne, or –ette are currently in decline. Several words like actress or waitress are still often used, but the suffixes are not considered productive anymore, which means that speakers don’t use them regularly to create new words. Words like authoress or songstress as well as comedienne are considered diminishing and can be rarely found in texts.

Research shows that gender-neutral words are highly important in reducing stereotypes and implicit discrimination. Most of the examples shown below are already widespread and many people don’t even notice when they are using a gender-neutral equivalent of a «male-biased» word.








police officer

salesman, saleswoman


postman, postwoman

postal worker, mail carrier

steward, stewardess

flight attendant


camera operator


crew member


door keeper


maintenance person, fixer





In other words containing generic man, it can be easily replaced with human.





human-made, in some contexts artificial 

In cases of generic use of man and men they can be replaced with one, anybody, everybody, somebody, individuals, etc.


Not only words containing -men can be exclusive. Consider concepts like sisterhood/brotherhood as well as sorority/fraternity. Depending on the context, they could be replaced with one of the following: camaraderie, guild, affiliation, club, fellowship, house, kinship, order and society.

Another type of gender marking is also widely spread when talking about occupations: adding male or female as well as lady or gentlemen and other similar pairings to gender-neutral words. This practice of gender specification is very visible in the field of sports. However, in most cases, it is used asymmetrically. Overt gender marking is much more common for women's participation in sport, both in terms of the sport itself (women's football) and the athletes participating (woman golfer). We do not see comparable gender marking tendencies in the use of the word men.

This tendency goes beyond sports. For example, female or women writers are often talked about, but when in 1991 Valerie Babb, the assistant professor of English at Georgetown University, named her course "White Male Writers”, it drew significant attention from students, other professors, and as a consequence, from the media.

Expressions such as female doctor or male nanny only emphasize an already existing stereotype and should not be used. In general, gender marking should be avoided, when talking about other people. The few justifiable cases would be those of symmetrical gender marking and/or when a person's gender is relevant for the content.


Some firms are paying female junior developers more than male ones.

Did you watch the men's football worldcup?

The problem of gender binary seems to be unavoidable when using this type of markings, however, there are different practices coming from LGBTQIA community that allow to be more inclusive. Consider the use of x in words like womxn or latinx.

One of the essential concepts in the current discourse on gender is heteronormativity, the attitude that heterosexuality is the sexuality by default. In English, there are ways to be more inclusive and avoid heteronormativity, especially when talking about relational terms.


partner or loved/beloved instead of girlfriend/boyfriend

sibling instead of sister/brother

parent instead of mother/father

spouse instead of wife/husband

An honorific is a respectful form of address. In English, many honorifics are gendered: Mr. indicates a man, Miss indicates an unmarried, Mrs. a married woman. At the beginning of the 20th century, a new honorific Ms. was introduced, the one that didn't imply the marital status of a woman. Currently, some use the title Mx. (pronounced mix), if they don't identify with the female or male gender or simply don't want to be referred to by a gendered honorific.

But it's not only honorifics that pose a problem for gender sensitivity. Every time we address a group of people, a question occurs as to what to call them. Commonly used Ladies and gentlemen, as well as informal Hey guys or Boys and girls, are not inclusive. Here is a non-exhaustive list of words that gender-marked addresses can be replaced with: folks, friends, colleagues, guests, collaborators, people, partners, associates, all assembled, team, everyone, everybody.


dear all or to whom it may concern instead of Dear Madame/Sir.