Guide to Bias-Free Communications

This is one of the earlier essays that I am posting. It is on communications. As I publish more and more essays, the theme of communications will become more prominent. Clear, effective communications is the heart of every relationship be it business or personal. You can’t communicate with an audience effectively if you choose to ignore part of it.

I am also an advocate of diversity on teams, although my definition of diversity is based more on life experience than on ethnic, racial, religious or gender identification. Diverse teams are more difficult to manage because of barriers to communication, but the results of such teams are generally superior to those produced by homogeneous teams.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison produced the following article in 1991. I got their permission to reprint it at that time, and I am assuming that the permission still stands a decade later. The following is the article as it was posted on the USNET News System back in the days before windows and webs. I added in a couple of editorial comments where I thought they were necessary.

A Guide to Bias-Free Communications


Race & Ethnicity
Sexual Orientation


A Reference for preparing Official University Publications.

People in the university community are increasingly aware of the need to use language that recognizes our diversity and does not offend, demean or exclude people on the basis of gender, race, ethnic group, religion, age, ability/disability or sexual orientation.

In the fall of 1990 the Faculty Senate endorsed the Gender Equity Task Force recommendation to assist faculty, staff and students in dealing with these issues when preparing official university publications and other communications. A broad-based group of professionals from the university community developed this guide in consultation with a number of faculty, staff and students.

Changing our language usage, however, does not come easily or automatically. Familiar ways of writing and speaking are more comfortable; substitute phrases do not always spring quickly to mind.

This guide is meant to help you find a more encompassing word or phrase when you need it and to be more attuned to language that, whether intended or not, may offend others. The guide aims primarily at written material but applies as well to the spoken word. This area is controversial and in flux. Usage that groups prefer today may change next year, and this guide will be updated annually. The point is to try to communicate in a way that is respectful of diversity. Also, the examples we cite may not satisfy everyone. For those who want more specific information or other alternatives, we have included a bibliography.


1. Include all people in general references by substituting gender-neutral words and phrases for gender-biased words.





people, humanity, human beings


man-to-man defense

one-on-one defense


man the operation

staff the operation



labor, human resources


layman's terms

ordinary terms


man hours

staff hours



manufactured, synthetic, artificial

2. Communicate to everyone by including both male and female reference points. (Don't presume marital or familial relationships.)




faculty and wives

faculty and guests


you and your spouse are invited

you and your guest are invited



friends, guests, partners


Dear Sir

Sir or Madam Dear Madam or Sir Dear Colleague or Greetings


Dan’s note: I find that titles also work well when the gender of the recipient is unknown. For example, “Dear HR Manager,” “Dear Account Representative,” and even “Dear IRS Auditor”

3. Avoid gender-biased pronouns by:

a) Dropping pronouns that signify gender and restructuring the statement.



Each student should hand in his term paper by

Each student should hand in a term paper by

b) Changing to plural construction.




Each student should hand in his term paper by

Students should hand in term papers by


A nurse cares for her patients.

Nurses care for their patients

c) Replacing masculine or feminine pronouns with "one" or “you.”

Example Recommended
Each student should hand in his term paper by You should hand in your term paper by

d) Avoid awkward constructions such as he(she), s/he, (s)he, or him/her. Such constructions, which can easily be reworked, imply that women are considered to be the subject only as an afterthought.




As a professor emeritus, she is entitled to

A professor emeritus is entitled to


When welcoming a new teaching assistant, ask him/her to

When welcoming new teaching assistants, ask them to

4. Use parallelism to refer to women and men equally and to make references consistent.




Danny Jones, a strong athlete, and Suzy Favor, an attractive young runner, are

Jones, a strong basketball player, and Favor, a powerful runner, are


10 men students and 16 female students

10 male students and 16 female students


Prof. Brown and Julia Smith were recently

Prof. Brown and Prof. Smith

5. If a direct quote (derived from research or an interview) offends or inappropriately excludes women or men and is not essential to your document, consider eliminating, paraphrasing or replacing the quote.

6. Use neutral words for "man" and "woman" in job titles or descriptions,





chair, chairperson, director



police officers


sales girl

sales clerk



spokesperson (Dan’s note: speaker, representative)


lady lawyer



Founding Fathers


7. Base communication on relevant qualities, not on sex. Avoid sexual stereotyping.




She's a good basketball player. She shoots like a man.

She's a good basketball player. She shoots well.


A brilliant female researcher

A brilliant researcher

8. When choosing photographs or illustrations, consider the balance of women and men. Also, be conscious of the relative positions of women and men and their actions. Nonverbal messages, conveyed by portraying men standing/women sitting, men gesturing at smiling women, men pointing to or working with lab or other equipment while women passively observe, imply status differences. Such implications, whether subtle or direct, are unrealistic in the -modern workplace or university. Work with artists and photographers to update graphic content.


1. Refer to a person's age only when it is relevant to the medium of the message. For example, communications that follow newspaper style are generally expected to state a subject's age. However, in most internal university communications age is not pertinent and its mention may even be distracting.

Example Relevant
The researchers, ages 56 and 60, won a grant Patricia Schmidt, 12, will study at UW-Madison this spring. She is the youngest student ever to enroll...

2. If you use a generic age description, ask your subjects what wording they prefer. Do they refer to themselves as older persons or senior citizens? As youths, teenagers, or young people?

3. Avoid cliches such a "precocious," “spry” or "chipper," and avoid generalizations that reinforce stereotypes about age. Middle school children are not necessarily troublemakers, and not everyone over 80 lives in a nursing home.

4. Don't assume older people are less intellectually, physically, or emotionally able than other age groups. Also, don't underestimate the capabilities of younger people simply on the basis of their age.


Carl Eliot, 12, feeds his dog every day without having to be reminded.

Darleen Hampton, 62, still puts in a full day at the admissions office.

5. Don't use patronizing language.

Example Recommended
The sweet little old lady beamed as she entered the classroom The older woman smiled as she entered the classroom.

6. In communications meant to represent a range of experiences or viewpoints, include people of diverse ages.

7. Newspaper style dictates that females 18 years or older are women, not girls; males 18 years older are men, not boys. In a university setting, however, it may be appropriate to refer to all students, whether 17 or 60, as men and women.

Race and Ethnicity

Avoid identifying people by race or ethnic group unless it is relevant. We don't usually point out that an individual is white or of Anglo-Saxon heritage. The same rule should apply to other groups.




Andrew Young, the black mayor of Atlanta

Andrew Young, the mayor of Atlanta


Maria Duran, a Hispanic professor of physics, has been promoted.

Maria Duran, a professor of physics, has been promoted.


Alpha Beta Gamma, the black fraternity, wants to ...

The Alpha Beta Gamma fraternity wants to...

2. Avoid the term "non-white," which sets up white culture as the standard by which all other cultures should be judged. Also avoid "culturally disadvantaged" and "culturally deprived." These terms imply that the dominant culture is superior to other cultures or that other groups lack a culture.

3. Refer to individuals as "member of a minority group" or specify the minority group (e.g., Latino) when minority group identity is pertinent. ("Minority" refers to a group and serves as a modifier in the term "minority group.")




Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.

Women and members of minority groups are encouraged to apply.


Minorities attended the meeting.

Members of the Hmong and Korean communities attended the meeting.

4. Avoid words, images or situations that reinforce stereotypes and that imply all people of a particular race or ethnic group are the same.


Not surprisingly, the Asian-American students did best in the math contest.

The Problem

Assuming it is relevant to point out that this group excelled, the phrase "not surprisingly" may reinforce the stereotype that all Asian Americans have superior aptitude in math.

5. Be sure your communications do not patronize or give token attention to members of racial or ethnic groups. Exaggerated focus on people's accomplishments or insincere and gratuitous references to their concerns imply that they are not normally successful or accomplished, or are not considered to be in the mainstream of society.

6. Stay attuned to the current terminology by which racial and ethnic groups refer to themselves. Usage changes (e.g., from "Negro" to African American"; from "Oriental" to Asian American"). National newspapers and television news are good indicators of current usage. Also, ask people what term they prefer. (Dan’s note, I have a problem with all of this phraseology. Not every person I meet who is of apparent African or Asian background is an American … or wants to be).

People who trace their ancestry through the Caribbean or Central or South America may identify themselves as coming from any one of a number of different cultures and ethnic groups. For instance, the terms Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, Puertorrique all have different meanings. Many people whom the U.S. Census would describe as "Hispanic" prefer the term "Latino or Latina." Some people with Spanish-sounding surnames may have indigenous Indian, German or Asian ancestry or prefer to be referred to by their nationality; e.g., Colombian, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan. Others may prefer that no reference be made to their nationality or ancestry.

People whose ancestors originally populated North America may want to be identified with specific communities, such as Winnebago or Chippewa, or they may prefer to be referred to as "American Indian" or "Native American" rather than "Indian." If in doubt, ask.

Also attention must be paid to the punctuation used in referring to racial and ethnics [sic] groups. The terms "African American," "Asian American," etc., are nouns and should not be hyphenated. However, when these terms are used as modifiers, e.g., "the Asian-American students" in the example under number 4), they should be hyphenated.

7. Be sensitive to religion when referring to various ethnic groups. Don't make assumptions. For instance, just as not all Arabs are Muslims, most nationalities and ethnicities will embody different religious practices. Avoid stereotyping a race, nationality or ethnic group with a specific religion.

8. Review written communications and visual materials to ensure that, where appropriate, all groups -- women, men, minority and ethnic group members, older people and disabled people -- are represented. This does not mean that every publication, video or similar material must include all groups at all times, or that participation of particular groups should be exaggerated or overstated. But generic campus publications, such as college bulletins or communications that are part of a continuing series (such as newspapers or annual reports), should aim for reasonable representation of all groups involved.


The terms impairment, disability, and handicap are not synonymous. Be sensitive to the-meaning of each.

An impairment is a physiological condition.

Arthritis is an impairment in which tissues of the joints are damaged.

A disability is the consequence of an impairment. A disability may or may not be handicapping.

Disabilities resulting from arthritis include difficulty in bending the spine or limbs, and thus difficulty in walking or performing tasks.

A handicap is the social implication of a disability; a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment or oneself. The term should not be used to describe a disability.

People with arthritic knees and hips may be handicapped by the absence of elevators in older buildings.

2. Disabilities may be the result of either injury or disease -- often a disease long past. Disabled people should not automatically be viewed as sick or having a disease.

3. Put people first, not their disabilities




The visually impaired student used a special keyboard.

The student, who is visually impaired, used a special keyboard.

4. Do not focus on a disability unless it is relevant to your communication.


The new instructor, whose bout with polio left him on crutches, will teach two sections of African history.


The author of the text on legal rights for the disabled writes from experience. She has been a paraplegic since childhood.

5. In photos or illustrations, depict disabled people in everyday situations -- work, home, play -- and show them interacting with nondisabled people. Do not focus on wheelchairs, crutches, or other adaptive equipment.

6. When the context calls for discussion of people with and without disabilities, use that term -- "people without disabilities" -- rather than "normal" or "able-bodied. ("Normal" implies that by comparison disabled people are abnormal; "able-bodied" suggests that all disabled people are physically disabled or unable to compensate for their disabilities.) "Nondisabled" is another useful term.

7. Avoid language that portrays people with disabilities as either unfortunate, helpless victims, or, at the other extreme, as courageous superhumans.

Sexual Orientation

1. "Gender orientation" and "sexual orientation" are preferred to "sexual preference," a term which implies that being homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual is a matter of choice, and that sex is the focus of the relationship.

2. Most gay people prefer the term "gay" to the somewhat clinical term "homosexual." The term "gay" may be used to refer to both men and women,, but "lesbian" is the term preferred by gay women. Keep in mind also that people of a bisexual orientation may not consider themselves to be part of either the gay or heterosexual community.

As a matter of principle, refer to societal groups in the way that members of each group prefer. Ask people what term they prefer.

3. Avoid using "gay lifestyle" or "lesbian lifestyle." Being gay or lesbian is not a lifestyle; it is a fundamental orientation. In addition, gays' [sic] lives and relationships are as diverse as those of the rest of the population.

4. "Gay community" is an umbrella term used in the same manner that phrases such as 'the Italian American community' are used to describe groups with similar, but not identical, backgrounds and social agendas. The term may be used to refer to both men and women, but, again, 'lesbian and gay community' is preferred." ( Media Guide to the Lesbian and Gay CommunityL, 1990, p. 37)

5. Include the viewpoint of somebody who is gay when reporting on a gay topic. Better yet, solicit more than one gay viewpoint, since the gay, lesbian and bisexual community is not monolithic.

6. Avoid classroom or extracurricular activities or exercises that assume all students are heterosexual or that otherwise invade students,' privacy.


American Association of Retired Persons. Truth About Aging: Guidelines for Accurate Communications-. Washington, DC: AARP, 1984.

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 3rd. ed. Washington, DC: APA, 1983.

Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Media Guide to the Lesbian and Gay Community. New York: DLAAD, 1990. Jacksha, Barbara. "Avoid Disabling Words." The Professional Communicator- (dec. 1987/Jan. 1988) 8(l):9.

Lee, Rhonda, ed. -Guide to Nonsexist Language and Visuals-. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Extension, Equal Opportunities Program Office and Department of Agricultural Journalism, 1985.

Moore, Robert B. Racism in the English Language. 4th ed. New York: Council7on Interracial Books for Child7r-en, 1985.

Pickens, Judy, ed. Without Bias: A Guidebook for Non-Discriminatory Communication-. 2nd ed. San Francisco: International Association of Business Communicators, 1982.

Shear, Marie. "Equal Writes."    The Women's Review of Books- (Aug. 1984) 1(11): 12 & 13.

Siedman, Eileen, ed.   The Right Word: Guidelines for Avoiding Sex-Biased Language . Washington, DC: American Society for public Administration, National Committee on Women, 1979 (rev).