Avoid gender bias

In the English language, we have no singular, gender-neutral personal pronouns in the third person. Our options are he, she, and it; him and her; and his, hers, and its.

This creates problems when we need to refer to a single thing (say, a doctor), but don’t want to repeat the word.

Take an example sentence to show the problem:

Inelegant: “A doctor relies on that doctor’s medical training to help that doctor’s patients.”

Better, but with gender bias: “A doctor relies on his medical training to help his patients.”

Obviously, not only men practice medicine, so it’s misleading to use “his” here, if we can help it. There are a few solutions to the problem of gender bias.

Solution 1—pluralize

Doctors rely on their medical training to help their patients.

Solution 1 is the best solution. It creates a clean and unambiguous sentence, and it eliminates gender bias.

Solution 2—rephrase

A doctor’s medical training is essential in helping patients.

Solution 2 is a workable solution, but not ideal in all circumstances. It can create obscurity in the sentence, and some appears here in the phrase “in helping patients,” since we don’t know exactly who is helping patients (although in this case we can safely infer that it’s the doctor).

Solution 3—“he or she”

A doctor relies on his or her medical training to help his or her patients.

After the first solution, solution 3 one is the safest, though it is also the least elegant. This solution creates clunky sentences, to say the least, but clunky sentences should be preferred to pervasive gender bias.

Solution 4—alternate

While one doctor might rely solely on her medical training to help her patients, another doctor might rely more on his intuition.

Most often, solution 4 has to be implemented throughout a piece of writing, rather than in a single sentence. It solves the problems of inelegance and obscurity that come out of solutions two and three, but it needs to be done conscientiously.

If you alternate, but you use “she” to talk about every nurse and “he” to talk about every doctor, you’ve failed to avoid the problem of gender bias.

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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