Gender-Specific Language, thanks Microsoft


The classic 'good guy, bad guy' image

Recently I was writing something for my study using the terms ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ whilst referring to the way the hero in movies, or ‘good guy’ is often portrayed wearing white and the nasty evil person, ‘the bad guy’, wears black. When I did the spell check, a wonderful message from Microsoft came up on my screen;

Gender-Specific Language

Although the marked word or phrase may be acceptable in some situations, consider the suggestion that includes both men and women.

  • Instead of: They designed the cooking class for housewives,
  • Consider: They designed the cooking class for homemakers.
  • Instead of: Have you seen the stewardess?
  • Consider: Have you seen the flight attendant?
  • Or consider: Have you seen the steward?”

I have been going on about using ‘non gender specific language’ for years and here it was – the same message coming back to me from my laptop courtesy of the Microsoft grammar and spell checker!  Fantastic, I am so happy to see this message – thank you Microsoft. As a female, I find reading ‘he this’ and ‘he that’ in documents really quite unsettling when the person is actually me – a ‘she’. For most people, including most women, these male references are not something that they even notice. As women we are so used to hearing the words ‘man’ to describe an individual or group of people of both sexes, and the masculine used in all types of contexts that we often ignore the use of ‘he’ to describe a ‘person’ or the role of a person in documents. Recently I had a contract sent to me for my signature. The entire document used the masculine person instead of using a non-gender specific term like “The Consultant”. I was surprised to see such language in a new document and at first; I tried to ignore the ‘he’ references thinking that I was just being over critical. After the first 15 pages, I was starting to feel a little annoyed so I went back and changed all the references so that the document would actually relate to me before I signed it.

In my business and in my professional life as a Program Manager, I always use non-gender specific terms when referring to people or roles in professional documents. I think that it is respectful and doesn’t assume that a role will be filled by a male or a female. It is more inclusive, so instead of saying something like;

“The Project Manager is responsible for the correct management of the budget, he will ensure that all relevant financial reports are completed and socialised with the project sponsor on a monthly basis”,

I would say;

“The Project Manager is responsible for the correct management of the budget, they will ensure that all relevant financial reports are completed and socialised with the project sponsor on a monthly basis”.


“The Project Manager is responsible for the correct management of the budget, the Project Manager will ensure that all relevant financial reports are completed and socialised with the project sponsor on a monthly basis”.

This is what I was writing when the Microsoft message came up and I changed my ‘good guy’, ‘bad guy’ references to read ‘bad person’, ‘good person’;


I found the Pattel, Gray reading ‘The Hard Truth’ articulating many of my own thoughts in a way that I have never been able to do.  The idea that most, if not all women (including indigenous women) in predominately-white societies are judged according to an ‘ideal white female model’ is something that I had not previously considered.  I knew that there was a strong image of the ‘Eve as sinner and Mary as virginal model’, but I had not considered how this related to indigenous women.  Further that “Whiteness represented goodness, purity, innocence and virginity, and more; this became the basis on which Euro-Australians identified themselves”. (Pattel-Gray, 1999, pp. 259-260).

I wonder if this can be related to the idea of the bad person in movies dressed in black and the good person dressed in white or something that is not black.  Certainly, the traditional white wedding dress must fall into this same model?

Pattel-Gray, A. (1999). The hard truth: white secrets, black realities. In A. Pattel-Gray, Australian Feminist Studies (Vol. 14, pp. 259-266). Australia: Taylor and Francis Ltd.”

Whilst most people readily accept my request for non-gender specific terminology in documents, I have had people tell me that this is silly and I should not be so pedantic. That is until I do a simple exercise of replacing all the people references in documents to read ‘she’ instead of the usual ‘he’. Alternatively, when speaking in a meeting or giving a talk, I change the language so it always refers to ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘they’. People both sexes start to feel unsettled. They are used to hearing the masculine and not the feminine, this change is strange for them to hear, but it does not immediately occur to them what has changed, they just know that something has changed.

Have you ever noticed the use of gender specific language and has it annoyed you too?


4 thoughts on “Gender-Specific Language, thanks Microsoft

  1. The use of gender specific language annoys me greatly! I always get angered when I read letters and documents etc. that refer to ‘he’ when I am not a male! It is not pedantic at all to request for non-gender specific terminology in documents; we live in world that should be preaching equality between women and men and we should therefore not have to be addressed as men! I still don’t understand why organisations can’t just make standard documents that are non-gender specific. One of my key interests as part of my university degree is women in American history – so these types of issues bother me a lot!!

  2. Thanks Ellie, I was sure it wasn’t just me and I like your views. Organisations don’t make non-gender specific documents because these organisations have been traditionally owned, and managed by men and of course they don’t see the issue! Over centuries women have become ‘naturalised’ to the language and its associated behaviours and think it normal. Even doing my university degree (Sociology) my female lecturers told me that it was ‘normal and accepted’ that we use the masculine in academic documents! No, no,no its not! I challenged them and helped them to understand that as female academics, they are falling into the same socialised behaviour that they were asking us to study! It is up to US to change it by changing the language every time we write a document, or every time we have an opportunity to speak in public or every time we manage an organisation or community group. So you have a fantastic opportunity to change this language in your world. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Nice article, I’m enjoying Scott Berkun’s book on project management right now, he is using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’, really nice to see how it jars a little and reminds you just how we get used to the ‘he’. I have to admit I’m very happy with ‘guys’ being both genders, to me it is not gender specific at all.

  4. Thanks Caroline. I haven’t seen Scott Berkun’s book but will have a look for it. I have been happy with the use of ‘guys’ in an information technology environment, but I wonder if I have been conditioned to think that it is non-gender specific and inclusive of females when maybe it is not?

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