14 Elimination of Stereotyping in Written Communications

14.01 Introduction

A 1982 Government of Canada document entitled "Elimination of Sexual Stereotyping"1 defines sexual stereotyping as "the use of words, actions, and graphic material that assigns roles or characteristics to people solely on the basis of gender, and without regard for the intrinsic potentials of women and men" and goes on to state that it is the policy of the Government to eliminate sexual stereotyping from all government communications.

Given that communications have a cumulative impact on people’s perceptions, behaviour and aspirations, that most communications reach an audience composed equally of women and men, and that women are the prime target of sexual stereotyping, the document provides a number of guidelines for written communications.

In 1990, the Government of Canada issued "Fair Communication Practices,"2 guidelines to eliminate sexual stereotyping and to ensure the fair and representative depiction of ethnic and visible minorities, Indigenous peoples and people with disabilities. The guidelines are based on the principle that "all individuals, irrespective of gender, ancestry and ethnic origin or disability, are and must be portrayed as equally productive and contributing members of Canadian society." They are intended to help correct biases and stereotypes that constitute barriers to full participation in society. In practical terms, they require that material "be reviewed to eliminate words, images and situations that reinforce erroneous preconceptions or suggest that all or most members of a racial or ethnic group have the same stereotypical characteristics."

This chapter lists many of the stereotyping problems covered in the two federal government documents and in other pertinent material, and shows how those problems can be solved. The objective in each case is to ensure the equal treatment of men and women in written material, to depict all individuals as fully participating members of society, and to eliminate preconceived ideas about their functions and attributes.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to one of courtesy and respect for all, regardless of gender, origin or disability.


  • Back to the note1 Treasury Board, Administrative Policy Manual, Chapter 484.
  • Back to the note2 Treasury Board, Treasury Board Manual, Information and Administrative Management, Appendix E.

14.02 Elimination of Sexual Stereotyping, Correspondence; names and forms of address

The form preferred or used by the person being addressed or referred to should be retained if it is known. Otherwise, the following guidelines should be applied in order to ensure uniform and equal treatment of the sexes.

  • In formal correspondence, use Ms., Mrs., Miss or Mr. When the addressee is a woman, and her preference cannot be ascertained, use Ms.:

    Dear Ms. Samuels:

  • If the gender of the addressee is not known, begin your reply with "Dear" followed by the person’s initials and surname:

    Dear J. D. Simmonds:

    Where the name of the addressee is not known, use the form "Dear Sir/Madam" or "Dear Madam or Sir."

  • When writing to an organization or to unspecified individuals, use an inclusive salutation:

    Dear Members of the Rotary Club:
    To the Consumer Relations Department:
    To whom it may concern:

An alternative is to use the memo format and omit the salutation.

See also 10.17 Salutation or greeting.

14.03 Parallel treatment

When the names of a woman and man are mentioned together, use parallel language so that men and women are portrayed as equals:

  • Alan Knight and Joyce Philips
  • J. Philips and A. Knight
  • Knight and Philips
  • Joyce Philips, the engineer, and Alan Knight, the journalist


  • Mrs. J. Philips and Alan Knight


  • Alan Knight, the journalist, and Mrs. J. Philips

Ensure parallel treatment of couples:

  • Mr. and Mrs. James and Irene Luciano
  • James and Irene
  • Mr. and Mrs. Luciano
  • James and Irene Luciano


  • Mr. and Mrs. James Luciano


  • James Luciano and his wife Irene

Ensure parallel treatment of work associates:

  • Raymond Kovacs and his assistant Karen White
  • Margaret Thompson, Vice-President, and her executive secretary Bill White


  • Mr. Kovacs and his assistant Karen
  • Margaret Thompson, Vice-President, and her executive secretary Bill

Alternate order of reference so that one sex is not always given second place:

  • Karen White and her immediate superior, Raymond Kovacs
  • Joyce Philips and Alan Knight
  • Mr. White and Ms. Thompson

In distribution and other lists, use alphabetical order or list according to rank.

14.04 Pronouns

Because English lacks a singular pronoun that signifies the non-specific "he or she," customarily the masculine pronoun has been used. The following guidelines help to avoid this usage.

  • Avoid using the pronoun:

    The section chief is responsible for maintaining good relations with clients and ensuring that deadlines are met.


    The section chief is responsible for maintaining good relations with his clients. He ensures that deadlines are met.

  • Repeat the noun:

    An employee must file a grievance within the prescribed time limit. The employee’s union representative will usually be involved at this stage of the process.


    An employee must file a grievance within the prescribed time limit. His union representative will usually be involved at this stage of the process.

  • Use the plural:

    All responsibility centre managers must prepare their own work plans.


    Each responsibility centre manager must prepare his own work plans.

  • Use a neutral word such as "one," "individual" or "incumbent":

    the incumbent’s duties not  his duties

  • Use both pronouns, but avoid using parentheses:

    his or her duties  not  his (or her) duties

  • Address your reader directly. Substitute "you" or "yours" for "he" or "his," using the imperative mood where needed:

    Send two copies of your academic record to the Human Resources Officer.


    The applicant must send two copies of his academic record to the Human Resources Officer.

  • Use sentence fragments when writing job descriptions:

    Develops, implements and evaluates programs to improve information services; directs research in information resource management.

14.05 Personification

Avoid using feminine or masculine pronouns to personify animals, events, ships, etc.:

  • Once again the area was hit by hurricane Flora. It wrought havoc.


  • . . . . She wrought havoc.

14.06 Titles of occupations

Eliminate titles and terms which suggest that a job is not typically performed by persons of either sex or that the task varies depending on whether the incumbent is a woman or a man. As far as possible, job titles should not imply that the job can be filled only by members of one sex.

  • Do not feminize occupational titles by adding ess, as in "manageress," ette as in "usherette" and ix as in "executrix." Do not add gratuitous modifiers, as in "lady doctor" or "male nurse."
  • Use feminine nouns when women are referred to, or gender-inclusive nouns when a man or woman is not specifically referred to:
    • spokeswoman/spokesperson/representative not spokesman
    • chairwoman/chairperson/chair not chairman3
    • councillor not councilman or alderman
    • technician not repairman
    • trade worker not journeyman
    • cleaner not cleaning woman
  • For non-discriminatory occupational titles, refer to the Manual of Sex-Free Occupational Titles and the National Occupation Classification.    


  • Back to the note3 In some cases, official names such as "chairman" and "alderman" cannot be changed without legal approval.

14.07 Man, lady, girl, woman

Avoid using the generic man to refer to people in general and, where possible, as part of a compound:

  • anybody, anyone not a man
  • nobody, no one not no man
  • average person not common man
  • ordinary people not the man in the street
  • writer not man of letters
  • staff/operate/run a booth not man a booth
  • labour force, personnel, staff, work force not manpower
  • synthetic or manufactured not man-made
  • humanity, people not mankind
  • compatriot not countryman

Unless a minor is referred to or you wish to evoke refinement or high standing, use woman, not girl or lady:

  • The men and women of the Administrative Support Division


  • The men and girls of the Administrative Support Division

  • Seventy percent of the delegates were women.


  • Seventy percent of the delegates were ladies.

14.08 Elimination of Sexual Stereotyping, Full range of human characteristics and situations

All people, including women as individuals or as a group, should be treated with respect and dignity. To this end they should be depicted as living and working in a variety of circumstances and assuming a broad range of responsibilities.

  • Avoid gratuitous reference to physical or other characteristics and undue emphasis on traditional roles:

    Dr. and Mrs. Rolfe
    Dr. Erica and Mr. John Bruce


    Dr. Rolfe and his charming blonde wife Dora
    John Bruce and his doctor wife

  • Do not suggest that men are the norm in certain situations and women in others. Show that members of each sex are now filling roles that were traditionally the preserve of the other sex:

    Parent and child
    Mother and child

    People (or Families) are suffering increasingly from the burden of taxation.
    Men and their families are suffering increasingly from the burden of taxation.

    Professionals, their spouses and their children
    Professionals, their wives and their children

    the average worker
    the average wage-earner
    the average working man

  • Ensure that women as a group are treated with respect, particularly in the role of homemaker. Refer to "women re-entering the work force," not to "women going back to work." Do not refer to "working women" or "working wives" in contrast to homemakers; use the expression "women working outside the home" or an equivalent.

14.09 Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping, Ethnic clichés

Eliminate and avoid expressions which cloud the fact that all attributes may be found in all groups: for example, "inscrutable Orientals," "frugal Scots" or "lazy Mexicans."

14.10 Gratuitous modifiers

Certain modifiers reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes by giving information that suggests an exception to the rule. Avoid them:


  • The board interviewed a number of intelligent Black students.


  • . . . a number of Black students.


  • . . . a number of intelligent students.

14.11 Connotative modifiers

Be cautious in using adjectives that, in certain contexts, have questionable racial or ethnic connotations or insulting, often racist overtones, such as primitive, conniving, savage, lazy, backward, culturally deprived, simple, and clannish.

14.12 Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping, Identification of groups

Be aware of the current self-identification preferences of racial and cultural groups in Canada:

  • Black(s), not Negro(es)
  • ethnic (or cultural) minorities, not ethnics
  • Indigenous people(s) in Canada, not Indigenous Canadians
  • Inuk (singular), Inuit (plural), not Eskimo
  • Métis, not Metis

Note that the term African American is gaining currency in the U.S.A.

Note also that the terms used to designate the Indigenous peoples of Canada have undergone considerable change in recent years. Although the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, uses the term aboriginal peoples in the lower case, the words Aboriginal and Indigenous have since come to be capitalized when used in the Canadian context. The terms currently preferred are the following:

  • Indigenous people(s)
  • First people(s)

14.13 Fair and Representative Depiction of People with Disabilities, Full range of human characteristics and situations

People with disabilities should be depicted as living and working in a variety of circumstances with a range of responsibilities, and as active participants in events. They should be identified by their achievements rather than their limitations.

The whole range of human characteristics and attributes applicable to non-disabled persons should be shown to apply to persons with disabilities.

14.14 Fair and Representative Depiction of People with Disabilities, Identification of groups

Do not define people by their disorders or use dehumanizing stereotypes, such as "the disabled," "the blind," "the retarded."

  • Be aware of the self-identification preferences of individuals or groups:
    • people/persons with disabilities not the handicapped
    • Canadians with disabilities not disabled Canadians
  • The generic term "people with disabilities" can be adapted to the purpose of the text:
    • passengers requiring assistance to board the plane/train
    • students who use wheelchairs
    • clients with a hearing impairment

14.15 Neutral word descriptions

Avoid language that suggests characteristics of courage, suffering, pity or abnormality, such as brave, inspirational, victim, special, incompetent or defective. Use factual rather than emotional terms:

  • person who has lupus not lupus sufferer
  • wheelchair user not confined to a wheelchair
  • congenital condition not birth defect
  • person with cerebral palsy not spastic
  • Down syndrome not mongolism
  • hearing- and speech-impaired not deaf and dumb
  • non-disabled students not normal students
  • intellectually or developmentally impaired not retarded
  • seizure not fit

Avoid condescending euphemisms like "physically challenged" and "differently abled."

Use precise words when describing disabilities. The degree of impairment must be taken into consideration:

  • paraplegic or quadriplegic not crippled
  • visually impaired not partially blind