When you are writing, you need to follow general principles to ensure that your language is free of bias. Here we provide guidelines for talking about gender with inclusivity and respect.
Gender offers an added layer of specificity when interpreting patterns or phenomena of human behavior. However, the terms related to gender and sex are often conflated, making precision essential to writing about gender and/or sex without bias. The language related to gender identity and sexual orientation has also evolved rapidly, and it is important to use the terms people use to describe themselves (Singh, 2017; for how to determine appropriate terms, see General Principles for Reducing Bias; for a list of terms and definitions, see APA, n.d.).
Gender versus sex
Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex (APA, 2012). Gender is a social construct and a social identity. Use the term “gender” when referring to people as social groups. For example, when reporting the genders of participants in the Method section, write something like this: “Approximately 60% of participants identified as cisgender women, 35% as cisgender men, 3% as transgender women, 1% as transgender men, and 1% as nonbinary.” Sex refers to biological sex assignment; use the term “sex” when the biological distinction of sex assignment (e.g., sex assigned at birth) is predominant. Using “gender” instead of “sex” also avoids ambiguity over whether “sex” means “sexual behavior.” In some cases, there may not be a clear distinction between biological and acculturative factors, so a discussion of both sex and gender would be appropriate. For example, in the study of sexual orientation, researchers continue to examine the extent to which sexuality or sexual orientation—attraction to sex, gender, or some combination of both—is a biological and/or acculturative phenomenon.
Gender identity is a component of gender that describes a person’s psychological sense of their gender. Many people describe gender identity as a deeply felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or a nonbinary gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, agender, gender-fluid) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth, presumed gender based on sex assignment, or primary or secondary sex characteristics (APA, 2015a). Gender identity applies to all individuals and is not a characteristic only of transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals. Gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation; thus, the two must not be conflated (e.g., a gay transgender man has a masculine gender identity and a gay sexual orientation, a straight cisgender woman has a feminine gender identity and a straight sexual orientation).
Reporting of gender
Authors are strongly encouraged to explicitly designate information about the gender identities of the participants making up their samples (e.g., whether participants are transgender, cisgender, or other gender identities) rather than assuming cisgender identities. Cisgender refers to individuals whose sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity (APA, 2015). Cisgenderism or cissexism refers to the belief that being cisgender is normative, as indicated by the assumption that individuals are cisgender unless otherwise specified (both terms are in use). Genderism refers to the belief that there are only two genders and that gender is automatically linked to an individual’s sex assigned at birth (American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, 2015).
Transgender and gender-nonconforming people
Transgender is used as an adjective to refer to persons whose gender identity, expression, and/or role does not conform to what is culturally associated with their sex assigned at birth. Some transgender people hold a binary gender, such as man or woman, but others have a gender outside of this binary, such as gender-fluid or nonbinary. Individuals whose gender varies from presumptions based on their sex assigned at birth may use terms other than “transgender” to describe their gender, including “gender-nonconforming,” “genderqueer,” “gender-nonbinary,” “gender-creative,” “agender,” or “two-spirit,” to name a few. (Note that “two-spirit” is a term specific to Indigenous and Native American communities.) Transprejudice and transnegativity denote discriminatory attitudes toward individuals who are transgender. Diverse identity terms are used by transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people, and “TGNC” is a generally agreed-upon umbrella term. These terms are generally used in an identity-first way (e.g., “transgender people,” “TGNC people”). However, there is some variation in the field; for example, clinicians often refer to individuals according to identity (self-identified) or describe gender variance, gender expansiveness, or gender diversity rather than gender nonconformity or nonbinary gender. Be sure to use identity labels that are in accordance with the stated identities of the people you are describing, and clearly define how you are using such identity labels within your writing.
The terms “birth sex,” “natal sex,” “tranny,” and “transvestite” are considered disparaging by scholars in TGNC psychological research; by many individuals identifying as transgender, gender-nonconforming, or nonbinary; and by people exhibiting gender diversity. Thus, these disparaging terms should be avoided. Additionally, “birth sex” and “natal sex” imply that sex is an immutable characteristic without sociocultural influence. It is more appropriate to use “assigned sex” or “sex assigned at birth,” as this functionally describes the assignment of a sex term (frequently binary male or female; however, intersex is an accurate assignment for some) predicated on observation of genitalia and/or determination of chromosomes and anatomical structures of the body at birth, which necessarily is interpreted within a sociocultural context. The term “transsexual” is largely outdated, but some people identify with it; this term should be used only for an individual who specifically claims it.
Gender and noun usage
Refer to all people, including transgender people, by the name they use to refer to themselves, which may be different from their legal name or the name on their birth certificate, keeping in mind provisions for respecting confidentiality. Likewise, to reduce the possibility of stereotypic bias and avoid ambiguity, use specific nouns to identify people or groups of people (e.g., women, men, transgender men, trans men, transgender women, trans women, cisgender women, cisgender men, gender-fluid people). Use “male” and “female” as adjectives (e.g., a male participant, a female experimenter) when appropriate and relevant. Use “male” and “female” as nouns only when the age range is broad or ambiguous or to identify a transgender person’s sex assignment at birth (e.g., “person assigned female at birth” is correct, not “person assigned girl at birth”). Otherwise, avoid using “male” and “female” as nouns and instead use the specific nouns for people of different ages (e.g., women).
To refer to all human beings, use terms like “individuals,” “people,” or “persons” rather than “man” or “mankind” to be accurate and inclusive. Avoid gendered endings such as “man” in occupational titles (e.g., use “police officer” instead of “policeman”), as these can be ambiguous and may imply incorrectly that all persons in the group self-identify as one gender. Instead, use a nongendered term if possible (e.g., “homemaker” instead of “housewife”). If you use sources that include the generic “man,” generic “he,” or dated occupational titles, clarify the historical context in which these terms were used.
Gender and pronoun usage
Pronoun usage requires specificity and care on the author’s part. Do not refer to the pronouns that transgender and gender-nonconforming people use as “preferred pronouns” because this implies a choice about one’s gender. Use the terms “identified pronouns,” “self-identified pronouns,” or “pronouns” instead. When writing about a known individual, use that person’s identified pronouns. Some individuals use “they” as a singular pronoun; some use alternative pronouns such as “ze,” “xe,” “hir,” “per,” “ve,” “ey,” and “hen” (Swedish gender-neutral pronoun), among others. Some individuals may alternate between “he” and “she” or between “he and/or she” and “they,” whereas others use no pronouns at all and use their name in place of pronouns. Refer to a transgender person using language appropriate to the person’s gender, regardless of sex assigned at birth—for example, use the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” in reference to a transgender man who indicates use of these pronouns.
When referring to individuals whose identified pronouns are not known or when the gender of a generic or hypothetical person is irrelevant within the context, use the singular “they” to avoid making assumptions about an individual’s gender. Use the forms “they,” “them,” “theirs,” and so forth. Sexist bias can occur when pronouns are used carelessly, as when the pronoun “he” is used to refer to all people, when a gendered pronoun is used exclusively to define roles by sex (e.g., “the nurse . . . she”), or when “he” and “she” are alternated as though these terms are generic. Pronouns associated with a specific gender have been found to induce readers to think of individuals of that gender even when the pronoun use is intended to be generic (Gastil, 1990; Moulton et al., 1978). In addition, exposure to gender-specific language in a professional context has been linked with a lower sense of belonging, reduced motivation, and professional disidentification for individuals who do not identify with that gender (Stout & Dasgupta, 2011). When writers use the singular “they,” it reduces bias in the way that readers perceive the individuals referred to in the text and thereby helps ensure that readers do not feel ostracized by that text.
Avoid using combinations such as “he or she,” “she or he,” “he/she,” and “(s) he” as alternatives to the singular “they” because such constructions imply an exclusively binary nature of gender and exclude individuals who do not use these pronouns. These forms can also appear awkward and distracting, especially with repetition. However, the combinations “he or she” or “she or he” (but not the combinations with slashes or parentheses) can be used sparingly if all people being referred to by the pronouns use these terms.
Terms that imply binaries
Avoid referring to one sex or gender as the “opposite sex” or “opposite gender”; appropriate wording may be “another sex” or “another gender.” The word “opposite” implies strong differences between two sexes or genders; however, there are more similarities than differences among people of different genders or sexes (see, e.g., Zell et al., 2015). As noted previously, some individuals do not identify with either binary gender, and these phrases ignore the existence of individuals who have disorders or differences of sex development or who are intersex (for more information, see Accord Alliance, n.d.; APA, 2015; Blackless et al., 2000; Intersex Society of North America, n.d.). To describe members of a relationship (e.g., romantic couples, people in polyamorous relationships), use the phrases “mixed gender” or “mixed sex” when the partners have different genders or sexes, rather than “opposite gender” or “opposite sex”; use the phrases “same gender” or “same sex” when the partners have the same gender or sex.
Examples of bias-free language
The following are examples of bias-free language for gender. Both problematic and preferred examples are presented with explanatory comments.
1. Differentiation of gender from sex
It was participants’ sex (whether they were women, men, or nonbinary), not their sexual orientation, that affected number of friendships.
It was participants’ gender (whether they were women, men, or nonbinary), not their sexual orientation, that affected number of friendships.
Comment: Avoid confusing sex with gender.
2. Discussion of humans in general
man a project
man’s search for knowledge
Preferred: people, humanity, human beings, humankind, human species
staff a project, hire personnel, employ staff
user–system interface, person–system interface, human–computer interface
workforce, personnel, workers, human resources
the search for knowledge
Comment: Do not use “man” to refer to all human beings. Use more inclusive terms instead.
3. Use of “males” and “females” as nouns
men, women, boys, girls
cisgender men, cis men, cisgender women, cis women, cis people, cis allies
transgender men, trans men, transgender women, trans women, transgender people, trans people
gender-fluid people, gender-nonconforming people, gender-expansive people, gender-creative people, agender people, bigender people, genderqueer people
individuals, adults, children, adolescents, people, humans
Comment: Specific nouns reduce the possibility of stereotypic bias and often clarify discussion. Use “male” and “female” as adjectives where appropriate and relevant. “Male” and “female” may be appropriate as nouns when the age range is quite broad or ambiguous and everyone in the group identifies as male or female or when used to identify a transgender person (e.g., “assigned female at birth” is correct, not “assigned girl at birth”). Otherwise, to refer to all people, use terms like “people” or “humans” (see also Example 10). Avoid unparallel usage such as “10 men and 16 females.” Avoid automatically placing socially dominant groups first (e.g., men then women).
4. Discussion of a generic person
The client is usually the best judge of the value of his counseling.
The client is usually the best judge of the value of his or her counseling.
The client is usually the best judge of the value of counseling.
The client is usually the best judge of the value of their counseling.
Clients are usually the best judges of the value of the counseling they receive.
The best judge of counseling is usually the client.
Comment: Do not use the generic “he” or “he or she” to refer to a generic person; instead, rewrite the sentence or use the singular “they.” When writing about a known individual, use that person’s identified pronouns.
5. Respect for pronouns
Comment: Do not refer to the pronouns that transgender and gender-variant people use as “preferred pronouns,” as this implies a choice about one’s gender.
6. Specifying gender when it is not relevant
female doctor, female physician
Comment: Specify gender only if it is a variable or necessary to the discussion (e.g., “13 doctors were women and 22 were men”).
7. Use of gendered terminology
nurturing [or specify exact behavior]
Comment: Do not imply that only mothers care for children. Use gender-neutral terminology when available and appropriate.
research scientists often neglect their wives and children
research scientists often neglect their spouses and children
Comment: People of any gender or sexual orientation can be research scientists.
8. Use of gendered occupational titles
supervisor or superintendent
postal worker or letter carrier
Comment: Avoid gendered occupational titles; instead, use a gender-neutral term to avoid implying that all people in that role are of a particular gender.
chairman (of an academic department)
Comment: “Department head” may be appropriate; however, the term is not synonymous with “chair” and “chairperson” at all institutions. Use “chairman” only if it is known that the institution has established that form as an official title.
chairman (presiding office of a committee or meeting)
Comment: In parliamentary usage, “chairman” is the official term and should not be changed. Alternatives are acceptable in most writing.
10. Use of adjectives in a gendered context
cautious men and timid women
cautious men and women, cautious people
timid men and women, timid people
Comment: Some adjectives, depending on whether the person described is a woman or a man, connote bias. The examples illustrate some common usages that may not always convey exact meaning, especially when paired. “Men” and “women” should only be used if these are the known genders of individuals.
11. Parallel description of participants
girls and men
women and men
Comment: Use parallel terms; “girls” is correct if the identified population being described pertains to adolescent or younger self-identified females.
12. Comparison of sexes and genders or descriptions of couples
Comment: Use of “opposite sex” and “opposite gender” implies a sexual binary and overemphasizes differences.
Accord Alliance. (n.d.). Learn about DSD. http://www.accordalliance.org/learn-about-dsd/
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Definitions related to sexual orientation and gender diversity in APA documents. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
American Psychological Association. (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10–42. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024659
American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming people. American Psychologist, 70(9), 832–864. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039906
American Psychological Association of Graduate Students. (2015). Proud and prepared: A guide for LGBT students navigating graduate training. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/apags/resources/lgbt-guide.aspx
Blackless, M., Charuvastra, A., Derryck, A., Fausto-Sterling, A., Lauzanne, K., & Lee, E. (2000). How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology, 12(2), 151–166. http://doi.org/bttkh4
Gastil, J. (1990). Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics. Sex Roles, 23(11–12), 629–643. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00289252
Intersex Society of North America. (n.d.). How common is intersex? http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency
Moulton, J., Robinson, G. M., & Elias, C. (1978). Sex bias in language use: “Neutral” pronouns that aren’t. American Psychologist, 33(11), 1032–1036. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003066X.33.11.1032
Singh, A. A. (2017). Understanding trauma and supporting resilience with LGBT people of color. In K. L. Eckstrand & J. Potter (Eds.), Trauma, resilience, and health promotion in LGBT patients: What every healthcare provider should know (pp. 113–119). Springer.
Stout, J. G., & Dasgupta, N. (2011). When he doesn’t mean you: Gender-exclusive language as ostracism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 757–769. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211406434
Zell, E., Krizan, Z., & Teeter, S. R. (2015). Evaluating gender similarities and differences using metasynthesis. American Psychologist, 70(1), 10–20. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038208