Gender and sexuality

When and how to mention gender and sexual orientation

Background:

Irrelevant mentions of someone’s gender, sexual orientation, or related information—such as someone’s relationship status or family situation—can introduce bias into your content. In addition, mentioning this information for some people but not others in the same piece may show imbalance and portray that characteristic as unusual.

Using “identifies as” to describe someone’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or related characteristic can imply that an identity is abnormal or not real. For example, people don’t typically say “She identifies as a woman” for cisgender women. Therefore, “They identify as nonbinary” should not be used either. In contrast, “is” is a neutral, clear word. In addition, some people do not consider an aspect of their gender to be part of their identity. For example, a person may identify as a man, not a transgender man, so saying “He identifies as a transgender man” would be inaccurate.

“Nonbinary” is an adjective to describe people whose gender identity is not completely male or completely female. As with other genders, it stands alone or appears as an adjective before a noun, as in “nonbinary gender identity” or “is nonbinary” (analogous to “female gender identity” and “is male”). The phrase “gender nonbinary” does not have correct syntax (we would not say “gender female”).

Recommendation:

Do not mention someone’s gender identity, sexual orientation, cisgender or transgender information, or related characteristic unless it is relevant. When that information is necessary, use “is,” not “identifies as,” as long as that word does not change the meaning. For people who are nonbinary, use the term “nonbinary” alone or, if necessary for clarity, “has a nonbinary gender identity,” not “is gender nonbinary.”

Examples:

Use:

Joe Smith presented their research on improving the efficiency of solar cells at the conference.

Avoid:

Joe Smith, who is nonbinary, presented their research

Use:

The professor came out as transgender to her class as a way to model openness and vulnerability in the classroom. (Being trans is essential context to the sentence, so it is OK to include.)

Use:

A group of scientists researched the proteins in human milk.

Avoid:

A group of women scientists researched the proteins in human milk. (The scientists’ genders are not relevant to the fact that they researched this topic.)

Use:

“I enjoy the flexibility of [an online schedule],” says Amanda Logan, a second-year student in a chemical technology program at Delta College. “I enjoy being able to watch a video and pause it, then rewind it. I’m able to learn the material more deeply than when I’m in class in person, where I’m trying to write everything down and don’t actually have time to process it until later” (Adapted from C&EN, March 21, 2021).

Avoid:

a second-year student in a chemical technology program at Delta College, who has three children (The fact that she has children is not relevant to her statement about enjoying the flexibility of an online schedule. As shown by her quote, the flexibility is related to her learning preferences.)


Gender-neutral language

Background:

Words that refer to men as the default make other genders invisible. They reinforce the idea that men are or should be dominant in the culture. When words referring to men are used in the names of jobs, for example, they imply that only men are in that role. 

Recommendation:

Whenever possible, choose gender-neutral terms instead of their gendered equivalents. Exceptions are for formal professional titles used with someone’s name. In that case, use the official title, even if it is a gendered term. A selection of gendered words to avoid and alternatives is below.

Avoid

Use

 

freshman

first-year student

 

man (as a generic person)

human, individual, person

 

man-hours

person-hours, work hours

 

man-made

artificial, built, constructed, machine-made, manufactured, synthetic

 

manpower


employees, labor, personnel, staff, workers

 

spokesman

spokesperson

 

unmanned (for space flight)

robotic, uncrewed, autonomous

 

Examples:

Use:

“The consequence is the possibility that humankind will return to the preantibiotic era wherein millions of people will perish from what should be trivial illnesses” (ACS Infect. Dis. 2018, DOI: 10.1021/acsinfecdis.7b00209).

Avoid:

mankind will return

Use:

We will accommodate an employee who wants to express milk for their child. (Also see “Singular ‘they’ when gender is not known or not important.”)

Avoid:

an employee who is a nursing mother (Not everyone who chest feeds or breastfeeds is a mother. Trans men and nonbinary people, for example, can also express milk.) 

Use:

Firefighters extinguished the blaze with foam containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Avoid:

Firemen extinguished

Use:

It was great meeting everyone during today’s meeting.

Avoid:

meeting you guys

Use:

Hi folks,
Per our action items from the meeting . . .

Avoid:

Hi guys


Not implying that gender is a binary construct

Background:

Not everyone has a gender identity that is completely female or completely male. Some people are a third gender, a mix of female and male, or no gender. Language that implies that only two genders exist makes nonbinary people feel invisible and not welcome.

Recommendation:

Avoid language that assumes there are only two genders. For example, do not use “he or she” to refer to a generic person. And do not offer just “male” and “female” as options on a form when asking people their gender (see “Example form”).

Examples:

Use:

Ask whether your professor would be willing to serve as a reference.

Avoid:

whether he or she

Use:

scientists

Avoid:

men and women scientists

Use:

Thank you, everyone.

Avoid:

ladies and gentlemen

Use:

This activity will help children of all ages learn the basics of chemistry.

Avoid:

boys and girls of all ages

Use:

“We asked a sample of subjects, mostly economics majors, to evaluate a paper written by mixed-gender couples” (Eur. Econ. Rev. 2016, DOI: 10.1016/j.euroecorev.2016.02.017).

Avoid:

opposite-gender couples


Singular “they” when gender is not known or not important

Background:

Correct grammar typically calls for a personal pronoun—words like “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they”—to match the noun it refers to in both number and gender. Some people use the plural, gender-neutral pronoun “they” for themselves, and respect, inclusivity, and accuracy require using that pronoun in those cases (see “Singular ‘they’ for people who use that pronoun”). Indefinite pronouns like “anyone” and “everyone” are typically singular and don’t have an associated gender. But English doesn’t have a singular, gender-neutral personal pronoun for people. So these words often take the plural pronoun “they”—for example, “Everyone should sign their names before submitting the forms.” While this use, called “the singular ‘they,’ ” is not completely accepted in formal writing, it is established and common in spoken language, informal writing, and some formal contexts. The style guide of the American Psychological Association, for example, endorses the singular “they,” as does AP style if rewording is not possible. And “they has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s,” according to Merriam-Webster.com.

Some people call for avoiding the singular “they” at all costs, claiming that it is ungrammatical and can be confusing. But poor writing can make any pronoun’s use confusing. For example, in “José and Ashish looked at his collection of books,” does “his” refer to José or Ashish? And, as a 2015 blog post from Stroppy Editor points out, research published in Psychological Science suggests that the singular “they” is as clear to readers as a generic “he” or “she.”

Language changes over time to suit the needs of the people who use that language. For example, “you” was originally used only in the plural and shifted to be both singular and plural. The singular “they” is becoming more popular, even in formal contexts. It is a simple, easily understood alternative to awkward constructions that try to avoid the singular “they” and to “he or she,” which should not be used because it assumes that gender is binary (see “Not implying that gender is a binary construct”).  

Recommendation:

When deciding whether to use the singular “they” for an unidentified person or indefinite pronoun, consider your audience, the tone of the overall piece, and the platform (e.g., scientific journal, social media). In most cases, you can use the singular “they” for a generic person whose gender is not known or not relevant. Do not use “he” or “she” alone as a generic pronoun, and do not use “he or she” or variants, like “he/she.” If your project doesn’t allow the singular “they” in these contexts, you can rewrite the sentence to avoid it, such as by making the subject plural.

Examples:

Use:

“Each student brought their research question (fairly well-formed or work in progress) and the supporting literature to these meetings where the viability of the proposed project was discussed, and refinements were proposed” (J. Chem. Educ. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c01140).

Avoid:

his or her research question

Use:

“Metamemory refers to a person’s awareness of their own memory” (ACS Symp. Ser. 2017, DOI: 10.1021/bk-2017-1269.ch001).

Avoid:

his or her own memory

Use:

The company is researching future applications for its discovery. (or “Company scientists are researching future applications for their discovery.”)

Avoid:

their discovery (In this case, the subject is “company,” which is a singular noun that is not a person. The singular possessive pronoun for objects is “its.”) 


Singular “they” for people who use that pronoun

Background:

Some people use the pronoun “they.” Using someone’s correct pronoun shows respect for that person. The singular “they” for a person has become common practice; it doesn’t need to be explained in the text. Furthermore, explaining someone’s pronoun can make that person feel excluded or that they are unusual. But for reader understanding, a brief explanation of someone’s use of a more uncommon pronoun, like “xe” and “ze,” may be necessary.

Note that the singular “they” is different than using no pronouns—using “they” in those cases would be using the wrong pronoun.

Recommendation:

Use the singular “they” for people who use that pronoun. Conjugate it with a plural verb: “They are.” Do not explain its use; just use it. Do not use awkward constructions like repeating the person’s name in every sentence to avoid using their correct pronoun. Just as with any good writing, the meaning of the pronoun should be clear, so make sure that the use of “they” for a single person is unambiguous. If a reflexive pronoun is needed, ask the person if they use “themself” or “themselves.” If you cannot determine what a person uses, use “themself.” If someone uses a more uncommon pronoun, briefly explain it, using the word “use.” If someone uses no pronoun, repeat the name or use a noun, like “my friend.” Also see “Discussing pronouns.”

Examples:

Use:

“One member of a NASA advisory panel, Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and an author of the Scientific American article, announced they were resigning from that committee in protest of the decision” (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2021).

Avoid:

an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium who uses the pronoun “they”

Use:

Sam Lin is excited for their introductory chemistry course. Their love for chemistry started in elementary school when a teacher did a volcano demonstration.

Avoid:

Sam Lin is excited for Lin’s introductory chemistry course.

Use:

Lourdes Rivas wrote the children’s book They Call Me Mix to explain to children what being nonbinary means. Spanish nouns are either feminine or masculine. Rivas uses the gender-neutral maestre instead of the masculine maestro or the feminine maestra for the word “teacher.” (In this case, using Rivas’s pronoun, “they,” in the third sentence might be confusing because the more recent plural word is “nouns.” Clarity is important regardless of which pronoun someone has.)

Avoid:

Spanish nouns are either feminine or masculine. They use the gender-neutral maestre.


Discussing pronouns

Background:

Although the most common personal pronouns are “he/him,” “she/her,” and “they/them,” many other pronouns exist. Furthermore, pronouns are not inherently feminine, masculine, or nonbinary. For example, a nonbinary person may use the pronouns “she/her” and “they/them,” and a man may use the pronouns “they/them.” People generally do not have “preferred” pronouns; they just have pronouns that they use. Using the word “prefer” signals that someone’s correct pronoun is optional. It is not. But it may be appropriate to use “prefer” when someone uses two pronouns—for example, “they” and “she”—and has a preference among those.

It is important to not force people to share their pronouns in a group setting. People may feel they have to lie about their pronouns or out themselves, and for those who are questioning their gender identity, a mandatory practice of publicly sharing their pronouns may force them to choose one that might not fully represent who they are.

Recommendation:

Use the word “use,” not “prefer,” when talking about people’s pronouns. Do not assume people’s pronouns. Do not require someone to publicly share their pronouns (as in an introduction in a group meeting). Instead, invite people to share, but note that it is optional. To normalize the process of sharing pronouns, consider including your pronouns in your email signature, social media profile, videoconference name, and name sticker at a conference, if you are comfortable doing so. You can also include your pronoun when introducing yourself in speech. But this practice should always be voluntary.

Examples:

Use:

What pronouns do you use? What are your pronouns?

Avoid:

do you prefer, preferred pronouns

Use:

They use a gender-neutral pronoun.

Avoid:

nonbinary pronoun (Using “nonbinary” in this way can imply that the pronoun is used only by nonbinary people or that all nonbinary people use that pronoun. There is no one correct pronoun for any gender identity.)


LGBTQ+

Background:

The abbreviation “LGBTQ” stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning.” The plus sign indicates the inclusion of other noncisgender or nonstraight people, such as asexual people, not named specifically by those letters. Because the term encompasses many gender identities and sexual orientations, the term refers to groups of people or a community, not an individual. Other versions of the abbreviation include “LGBT” and “LGBTQIA” (to include intersex and asexual, aromantic, and agender people). Not all intersex people identify with the LGBTQ+ community, however. As with other broad terms, using “LGBTQ+ “to refer to just a specific group (e.g., gay people) is not appropriate because it indicates a lack of understanding of the varied identities that LGBTQ+ includes (see also “People of color”).

Recommendation:

Use “LGBTQ+” to refer to a group of people who are not cisgender or not straight or who are questioning their gender or sexuality, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer or questioning. The abbreviation can be used on first mention. Do not use it for individuals. Other abbreviations, such as “LGBT” and “LGBTQ” (without the plus sign), should be used only if they’re in a quote or an organization’s name. When you are referring to specific sexual and gender identities and sexual orientations, name those groups instead of using the umbrella term “LGBTQ+.”

Example:

Use:

He spoke out against the discrimination of a gay scientist in his lab.

Avoid:

an LGBTQ+ scientist


Queer

Background:

 “Queer” was once a pejorative term for gay people. Some LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed the term to describe any or all of the following: a gender identity that is not strictly male or female or cisgender, a sexual orientation that is not exclusively heterosexual, people who feel that other terms represented by “LGBT” are too limiting or fraught to apply to them, and the broad community of people with marginalized gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations—similar to the abbreviation “LGBTQ+.” But some LGBTQ+ people still find the term offensive. In a 2018 Medium article, historian, writer, and educator Jeffry J. Iovannone explains, “Based on one’s age, place of becoming, or experience with homophobia, ‘queer’ can provoke feelings of trauma and exclusion.”

Recommendation:

When deciding whether to use the term “queer” to describe someone or a group of people, consider how that person or group wants to be identified. If the people you’re writing about describe themselves with that term, you can use it. Also think about your audience, how prominent the word will be (e.g., a headline versus body text), and the context of your content (e.g., the time period). If the people you are writing about are comfortable with the term and your audience is familiar with the reclaimed use of “queer,” you can use it as an umbrella term for people with marginalized gender identities and sexual orientations, similar to how you might use “LGBTQ+.” Do not use the term disparagingly.

Examples:

Use:

“I wanted to create a colorful and vibrant piece that is unapologetically queer, as a Black queer analytical chemist” (Anal. Chem. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.1c01826).

Use:

“C&EN has gathered this preliminary list of trailblazing LGBTQ+ chemists from history and a few we lost more recently” (C&EN, June 7, 2021).

Avoid:

queer chemists from history (Because this article is about people from history, when “queer” was used pejoratively, the term “LGBTQ+” is used instead.)


Transgender

Background:

“Transgender” means having a gender identity that does not perfectly match the sex assigned at birth. “Transgender” is typically not a gender. Transgender people can be any gender, including male, female, nonbinary, and others. “Transgender” is also not a sexual orientation. Transgender people can have any sexual orientation. Some people consider being transgender as part of their identity, while others do not.

“Transgender” is an adjective. The use of the term as a noun (“a transgender”) or with an “ed” ending (“transgendered person”) is considered offensive. The term is often shortened to just “trans.”

Recommendation:

Before using the term “trans,” spell out “transgender.” Do not use “transgender” as a noun, and do not use “transgendered.” Before you mention that someone is transgender, ensure you have the person’s permission and that the information is necessary (see also “When and how to mention gender and sexual orientation”). Do not treat “transgender” as a gender or sexual orientation.

Examples:

Use:

a transgender woman, a woman who is transgender

Avoid:

a transgendered woman

Use:

The researchers compared responses from transgender women and men, nonbinary people, and cisgender women and men. 

Avoid:

responses from women, men, and transgender people (This implies that transgender people cannot be women and men.)


Resources on inclusive language for gender and sexuality