What is in a pronoun? Why gender-fair language matters

Chelsea A. Harris, Natalie Blencowe, Dana A. Telem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
719 Downloads (Pure)


“The influence of language on thought is obligatory or at least habitual: thought is always, or under most circumstances, guided by language.” (Malt et al, 2003)

As the surgical workforce diversifies, the hierarchies and gender norms that have long characterized the profession are being challenged. This culture change has created a climate where overt discrimination is no longer tolerated and overall rates are declining.1 However, while these gains are commendable, discrimination has not disappeared—it has become subtler. Implicit biases, which are the automatic and often unconscious beliefs each of us hold, are a key example and may contribute to the well-recognized gender achievement gap in surgery.

Implicit biases can manifest in many ways, from decisions regarding who should be on an expert panel to the posture we assume when speaking with a colleague, but one of the most powerful ways implicit bias can act is through language. Currently, many in surgery lack a robust understanding of how their language can perpetuate gender or other stereotypes. Often, when it comes to terminology reform, male and female skeptics alike shrug off a need for change, dismissing any linguistic modernization as mere political-correctness. This approach is neither helpful nor appropriate. Here, we review the science detailing the ways language reinforces gender inequality and offer strategies to decrease linguistic bias.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)932-933
Number of pages2
JournalAnnals of Surgery
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 12 Dec 2017

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Surgical Research


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