Learn to Identify Bias in Your Writing (With Word Choice)

By: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

As an editor, one of the core concepts that my teachers have hammered into my head is the idea of avoiding bias in writing. While this usually doesn’t apply to fiction, it is super important when writing non-fiction, particularly widely-circulated publications like newsletters, press releases, and articles. We may not always notice when we do it, but learning to identify it when it happens is an important skill for any writer to have.

Borrowed from: http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/genderbias.jpg

One example of bias in writing is gender bias. It usually manifests itself with word choice. Let’s look at an example.

“She was behind schedule for cleaning the rooms, so the maid skipped spot treating the rug.”

There are a couple of things to note about this sentence. One, the maid is assumed to be a woman (men can be maids too!). Two, this skipped cleaning appears to be a one-time deal.

We should look at this sentence and understand that it can be taken out of context, and it may not necessarily be biased. Perhaps earlier in the paragraph, the author was talking about a particular maid and was letting us know about a particular incident with this maid on a certain day. Then that’s not bias, it refers to a specific person that was previously mentioned. You can let this one slide.

Here is another example:

“Firemen put everything on the line to save lives in an emergency.”

This sentence is biased either way you look at it. It assumes: that firefighters are only ever men, and only men firefighters would put everything on the line to save lives in an emergency. Ouch. That doesn’t seem right. I’m pretty sure that a woman firefighter would drop whatever she is doing and save as many lives as possible.

Not only is gender bias cringe-worthy for readers, it also puts the author in a bad light. The author can be deemed as sexist or out of touch with readers. You don’t want to be seen as that writer, do you?

Here is how to fix that sentence:

“Firefighters put everything on the line to save lives in an emergency.”

Over time, editors have changed their minds on how they want to handle gender bias. At one point, using he/she to denote both male and female counterparts is no longer widely accepted. Every once in a while, I see this in older books and it’s a little awkward. Sometimes, avoiding gender bias is a little tricky. When talking generally (about a large body of people who are similar in a particular way) you could pluralize the sentence in order to avoid using language that can be sexist and divisive.

This webpage offers some suggestions on how you can handle biased language in your writing. I have recounted them here:

Use the plural.
Biased: A nurse is trained to understand her patients’ emotions as well as physical symptoms.
Better: Nurses are trained to understand their patients’ emotions as well as physical symptoms.

Eliminate the pronoun or reword to avoid using a pronoun.
Biased: The average teenager worries about his physical fitness.
Better: The average teenager worries about physical fitness.

Replace the pronoun with one, he, or she, or an article (a, an, the).
Biased: The parent who reads to her infant cares for her infant’s intellectual growth.
Better: The parent who reads to an infant cares for the infant’s intellectual growth.

Repeat a title rather than using a pronoun.
Biased: Ask a firefighter for help, and he will get your kitten out of the tree.
Better: Ask a firefighter for help, and the firefighter will get your kitten out of the tree.

Even with these suggestions, use them with care. If you overuse some of these suggestions, your writing can become bogged down by repetition, and a reader may become bored.

Have you come across biased language in your own writing? Have you seen it in the writings of others?

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