Examples of Bias

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor

How to write without bias

Part of writing effectively is knowing and respecting your audience—all members of your audience. To accomplish this, it is important to be sensitive to racial, ethnic, age, religious, socioeconomic, political, occupational, and gender groups. By doing so, writers can avoid perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes. Using unbiased language is a matter of showing respect for and sensitivity to the feelings and beliefs of others.

Avoiding Biased Language

Bias is prejudice toward or unfair characterization of the members of a particular group. Bias is so common in speech and writing that we often are not even aware of it. But it is the responsibility of everyone to become conscious of and write without bias. The following guideline will help you to accomplish this objective.

When writing, avoid using offensive terms when referring to an individual or group of people.

Not: 

They have hired more broads this year than men.

Nobody used to hire micks around here.


But:

They have hired more women this year than men.

Nobody used to hire individuals around here of Irish descent.

Moreover, realize that terms once considered to be accurate or acceptable may no longer be and may even be considered offensive. When writing about a group of people, use the term that the group currently uses to refer to themselves.

Not: 

If he is elected, he would be the first Negro in the White House.

He has had the physical handicap since he was five.

There are many elderly people in our town.

But:

If he is elected, he would be the first African American in the White House.

He has had the physical impairment since he was five.

There are many senior citizens [or seniors] in our town.

Avoid expressions that stereotype a group of people, even when the stereotype is a positive one.

Not: 

I'm sorry; I must have been having a blonde moment.

Our neighbor drives like a farmer.

Cho Yung, a Chinese exchange student, is of course good at science.

Since the surgery, my father moves like an old fogy.

But:

I'm sorry; I must not have understood what you said.

Our neighbor is a slow driver.

Cho Yung, a hard-working exchange student, does well in science.

Since the surgery, my father moves more slowly.

Avoiding Gender Bias

Gender bias in language, or sexist language, is language that stereotypes or demeans an individual or individuals because of their gender. Language that is sexist unnecessarily distinguishes between or brings attention to differences between men and women in ability, temperament, behavior, or occupation. Such language, whether used intentionally or unintentionally, often irritates or offends readers. Thus, writers should pay attention to their style to avoid gender bias.

Generic Pronouns

Traditionally, the male pronouns were used to represent all members of a group, regardless of gender. However, many readers feel that using the generic he and him and similar pronouns encourages and reinforces gender-role stereotyping—that is, the belief that men are more able or better-suited to hold a certain occupation or status in society or the like. In order to avoid gender bias, do not use male pronouns to refer to people in general.

Not: 

Please remind everyone to bring his notepad and pen or laptop to the meeting.

Mark each potential donor's name off the list after you have talked to him.

Every person I talked to said he could come to the company party.

To fix this problem, one option is to use both the male and female pronouns.

But:

Please remind everyone to bring his or her notepad and pen or laptop to the meeting.

Mark each potential donor's name off the list after you have talked to him or her.

Every person I talked to said he or she could come to the company party.

This construction can become distracting when overused, however. To avoid this, you can also change the sentence to use the plural form of the pronoun. Make sure when you do so that you change the noun that the pronoun refers to to the plural form, as well.

Examples: 

Please remind team members to bring their notepad and pen or laptop to the meeting.

Mark potential donors' names off the list after you have talked to them.

All the people I talked to said they could come to the company party.

In longer texts, you can alternate the use of gender pronouns, using he in one paragraph (or section, chapter, example, and so forth) and she in another, for instance. (Keep in mind that some readers, however, may find this method somewhat distracting.) If you use this method, try to use pronouns that counter established stereotypes.

Examples: 

On her first day of work, each airplane mechanic should complete all of the necessary new-hire paperwork.

Every doctor should carry her pager with her when she is on call.

Before leaving work each day, the secretary should write down his most important tasks to be completed the next day.

Or, you can also recast the sentence and remove the pronoun reference completely.

Examples: 

On the first day of work, each airplane mechanic should complete all of the necessary new-hire paperwork.

Every doctor should carry a pager when on call.

Before leaving work each day, the secretary should write down the most important tasks to be completed the next day.

Some writers have responded to the singular pronoun problem by replacing the generic he with the generic she. This simply replaces one gender bias with another, however, and so this practice should likewise be avoided.

Not: 

Each employee should record daily the hours she spends on each project.

Every member of our staff gives her very best effort.

After the three-month probation period, a new employee can elect her medical and other benefits.

But:

Each employee should record daily the hours he or she spends on each project.

All members of our staff give their very best effort.

After the three-month probation period, a new employee can elect medical and other benefits.

Though in speech we often use the plural pronoun with a singular noun (particularly when preserving the anonymity of a person), this construction should be avoided in formal writing.

Not: 

Each member of the board denied that they were involved in the matter.

One staff member said they would not be able to attend the training.

Every manager agreed that they would come to the summit meeting.

But:

Each member of the board denied being involved in the matter.

One staff member said he or she would not be able to attend the training.

The managers agreed that they would come to the summit meeting.

And finally, avoid such constructions as he/she and s/he,as they are awkward and unattractive.

Not: 

The release forms must be signed by each contractor before s/he can be hired.

Each new hire should bring his/her completed documentation on the first day of work.

But:

The release forms must be signed by each contractor before he or she can be hired.

New hires should bring their completed documentation on the first day of work.

Word Choice

Do not use man, boy, and the like (or words containing such prefixes or suffixes) to refer to both genders.

Not: 

The firemen arrived on the scene shortly after the blaze started.

Tomorrow I am meeting with the chairman.

Do you know if the mailman has come yet?

But:

The firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after the blaze started.

Tomorrow I am meeting with the chair.

Do you know if the letter carrier has come yet?

Gender Stereotypes

Do not reinforce social or occupational stereotypes. Do not include superfluous information that unnecessarily differentiates between genders or calls attention to the gender or gender role of an individual.

Not: 

Jan is going to school to become a lady doctor.

Jeff Davies is a superb secretary, despite the fact that he is a man.

Mark Mendenhall, a manager, and Linda Decker, a supervisor and mother of two, are vying for the position.

But:

Jan is going to school to become a doctor.

Jeff Davies is a superb secretary.

Mark Mendenhall, a manager, and Linda Decker, a supervisor, are vying for the position.

This rule applies when giving examples, as well. If you consistently use examples that portray men and women in their “traditional” roles, you are reinforcing long-held stereotypes. Instead, use examples that challenge these stereotypes.

Not: 

The men in our department are good employees as well as good breadwinners.

Three out of four women prefer our brand of dish soap.

But:

The people in our department are good employees as well as good breadwinners.

Three out of four customers prefer our brand of dish soap.

Furthermore, do not use language that is demeaning or patronizing to either gender.

Not: 

She is an excellent manager, for a woman.

For a male, he's a rather competent nurse.

The women on our staff—those who haven't left to become stay-at-home mother—are hard-working and loyal.

But:

She is an excellent manager.

He's a rather competent nurse.

The women [or better, the employees] on our staff are hard-working and loyal.

Gender-Neutral Terms

Biased   Unbiased
businessman   businessperson
chairman   chair, chairperson, head
clergyman   member of the clergy, minister, pastor
Congressman   member of Congress, legislator, representative
fireman   firefighter
foreman   supervisor
mailman   letter carrier, mail carrier, postal worker
mankind   humankind, humans, people
manpower   Personnel, staff
policeman   police officer
salesman   salesperson
stewardess   flight attendant
waitress/waiter   server

Avoiding Racial Bias

Another form of bias is racial or ethnic bias, which stereotypes or demeans others based on their race or ethnicity. Blatantly derogatory statements, such as racial slurs, are unacceptable in any context.

Not: 

A family of Polacks moved into their neighborhood last month.

They have hired several Japs in our department in the last year.

But:

A Polish family moved into their neighborhood last month. (Or, better, “A new family moved into their neighborhood last month.”)

They have hired several Japanese employees for our department in the last year. (Or, better, “They have hired several Japanese employees for our department in the last year.”)

Such distinctions based on race should be made only if they are important to the context. Otherwise, it is unnecessary and inappropriate to mention an individual's or group's ethnicity.

In addition to racial slurs, racial bias also includes humor targeted at a particular group. Such jokes are never appropriate.

As is the case with gender bias, racial and ethnic bias can be perpetuated by thoughtless or repeated use of negative examples, such as referring to black unmarried mothers receiving welfare or Mexicans being illegal aliens. Such obviously biased, and generally exaggerated or inaccurate, examples should be avoided.

Furthermore, as indicated above, terms used to identify a group of people often acquire negative connotations over time. For this reason, it is not always easy to determine the correct or currently acceptable name for a group. Therefore, when referring to a group of people, use the term that they currently use to refer to themselves. If you are not sure what that term is, ask a member of the group.

Not: 

I believe this region was once the primary home of the Eskimos.

A large number of Indians attend my son's school.

Many Oriental students study at that university.

But:

I believe this region was once the primary home of the Inuit people.

A large number of Navajo children attend my son's school.

Many Asian students study at that university.

Avoiding Age Bias

In the United States and various other countries, looking and feeling young is considered by many to be very important. Perhaps because of this obsession with perpetual youth, aging, and particularly becoming “old,” are sometimes looked down upon. However, it is unacceptable to show disrespect or disregard for individuals beyond a certain age, just as it is unacceptable to show bias toward any group.

Avoid using demeaning terms to refer to older individuals.

Not: 

My manager, Mr. Winchester, just had his 50th birthday. Now he's definitely over the hill.

Mrs. Jensen, that old biddy, sometimes requires too much of her employees.

But:

My manager, Mr. Winchester, just had his 50th birthday.

Mrs. Jensen sometimes requires too much of her employees.

Also, avoid examples, illustrations, and jokes that are disrespectful or that reinforce negative stereotypes based on someone's age.

Avoiding Other Types of Bias

In addition to avoiding gender, ethnic and racial, and age bias, it is important to not stereotype or demean individuals based on occupation, religion, economic class, political beliefs, intellectual or physical impairments, and so forth. Again, when referring to a particular group, use the term that they prefer to use themselves.

Not: 

John Dunn is a right-winged fanatic.

He works as a janitor in our building.

Luke Weston, a poor working man, barely makes $15,000 a year.

Mary Jane will be mentally retarded for life.

But:

John Dunn is a dedicated conservative.

He works as a custodian in our building.

Luke Weston, a member of the working class, barely makes $15,000 a year. (Or better: “Luke Weston makes $15,000 a year.”)

Mary Jane will have an intellectual impairment for life.

Avoiding Euphemisms

When writing to avoid bias, it is also important to be cautious when using euphemisms. A euphemism is a mild or vague word or phrase that is substituted for one thought to be offensive or blunt. Such words should be avoided when they are simply used in irony or derisively as a means of mocking political correctness. Though they have their place (as when a speaker or writer is genuinely trying to be tactful or sensitive to another's feelings), euphemisms can be unnecessarily wordy and indirect. Therefore, when avoiding bias, use euphemisms appropriately.

Not: 

When your hair turns white and your face has more character, talk to us about helping you meet your long-term care needs.

Those in our country with a darker skin color are more susceptible to strokes.

But:

If you would like more information, talk to us about helping you meet your long-term care needs.

African Americans are more susceptible to strokes than other Americans.

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