By Ian Pisarcik, Legal Publications Attorney Editor
One of my favorite cartoons depicts a young female student standing next to a tall male teacher. Both are staring at a chalkboard. The chalkboard reads: Stone Age Man, Bronze Age Man, and Iron Age Man. The speech bubble extending from the young girls mouth asks: “Did they have women in those days?”
“Gender-neutral language is achieved by avoiding the use of ‘gendered generics‘ (male or female nouns and pronouns used to refer to both men and women).” This is easier said than done. But so is carrying a tune, and that doesn’t stop nine out of ten I-5 drivers from pulling their lips back and pretending they’re Mick Jagger.
The Oregon Appellate Courts Style Manual states that “[g]ender-neutral terms are preferred, and gender-based pronouns are avoided except when referring to a specific person.” The style guide suggests using “he or she” only when all other constructions fail. The Oregon State Bar Legal Publications Department asks authors to avoid gender-based pronouns as well, but actually recommends the “he or she” construction.
In most cases, this is straightforward (albeit, a little clumsy). The defendant has the burden of raising his Confrontation Clause objection becomes the defendant has the burden of raising his or her Confrontation Clause objection, or the defendant has the burden of raising the defendant’s Confrontation Clause objection.
But things can get tricky when writers decide to alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns. Not only does this tend to confuse the reader, but a recent study conducted by researchers at New Mexico State University found that (1) readers perceive alternating pronouns to be just as gender-biased as masculine pronouns, and (2) readers consistently rate writing featuring alternating pronouns as lower in quality than text with generic masculine pronouns.
Further complicating things are the countless terms that feature the word man. Some are easy to spot and fix: policeman should become police officer, serviceman should become serviceperson. But, there are others that are not as easy to spot or fix: manpower, manhole, ombudsman, penmanship, freshman, and middleman among them.
Achieving gender-neutral writing takes some effort. But it is an effort that most states are making and that OSB Legal Publications wholeheartedly embraces. And the fact that the United States Supreme Court lags behind in this regard should serve only as further motivation for lawyers concerned with eliminating subtle sexism in the field.
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