Technically Speaking: Tips, Techniques, and Targets to Make You a Better Writer

(As published in The Technical Writer magazine, articles by Hunter Brumfield)

Go Back


Taking the Sex Out of Technical Documents

The salesman and his youngest boy are driving down a busy, traffic-filled street when a truck driven by a drunken deliveryman suddenly careens into their lane, slamming into their automobile head-on. The father, sad to say, is killed instantly. His 9-year-old son is hurled from the vehicle and, though unconscious, is breathing when the ambulance arrives. With siren screaming, medics rush him to the hospital, where he is taken immediately into an operating room and prepped by two nurses for emergency surgery. An orderly helps move the youngster onto the operating table.

A few minutes pass and an out-of-breath doctor hurries in, takes one horrified look at the unconscious child and cries out: "Oh, no, MY SON!

What's going on here? A case of mistaken identity? A long-lost twin brother found in a tragic way? A boy who somehow has two fathers? Or an understandable bit of confusion on your part: in this case, the doctor happens to be a woman, and the woman is in fact the boy's mother.

Don't feel chagrinned if it didn't occur to you that the doctor might be female. This is an example a Tokyo professor uses in her classes to make a point about sexual stereotyping. When she asks her students to solve the puzzle, they come up with a number of explanations before being told the simplest one. The female students tend to do no better than the male students. And this, mind you, is in the English-taught classes of mostly western students at Sophia University.

I have taken literary license to expand somewhat on her accident tale to drive home a very real point. Many people have firmly held preconceptions about male and female roles in the work-world. In this world, doctors are men, and nurses are women. Bosses are men, and secretaries are women. Engineers are men, and uh, well, I can't think of any female engineering counterparts, unless it's the so-called "administrative assistant," which tends to be just another name for "secretary."

In truth, this male-biased view does more closely reflect the current state of affairs in Japan, where men dominate most professional jobs. But that is changing here, just as it began changing more than 20 years ago in the West. And with the change has come a quite legitimate effort, many people think, to change the way people write about who does what for a living. Tied to that is a growing school of thought that writing in general should be "de-sexed" — that is, all written references and inferences to gender, if not intentional, should be booted out of the language.

• When a word offends, pluck it out

Technical writers and editors would do well to pay close attention to this movement, if not for some higher social purpose, then for two good professional/business reasons:

  • More and more women are users of all types of products at work as well as at home

  • More and more women are responsible for making purchasing decisions at their companies

This being true, one of the Brumfield Rules of Manual Usability states: "When a word or phrase offends or gives pause, pluck it out."

In other words, if you think it might make the reader irritated or angry, use a different term.

So what might be considered offensive? That partly depends, of course, on the culture. What might seem perfectly fine in a Japanese user guide or assembly booklet might provoke angry reactions in the United States, Great Britain, or West Germany — countries where feminist sensitivities are particularly easily aroused. In fact, even within the United States, the hotbed of feminist thought, the attitudes widely vary. Yet there is a closet feminist lurking in the hearts of even the most docile woman.

Take, for instance, the purchasing officer of Company X.

She is a fairly typical American professional woman: college educated, in her mid-30s with two children, and recently promoted to head the purchasing division. She doesn't see herself as a feminist, having never once participated in a demonstration or "consciousness-raising session." It is partly because of her non-threatening way of dealing with men that she now finds herself the boss of several score of them.

One of the decisions facing her at the moment involves the leasing of new photocopiers for the company's southeastern U.S. division — amounting to a multi-million dollar order. She has had assembled for her the promotional materials and instruction booklets for four different copy machines, all with essentially the same features, performance, and price. Two of the machines are Japanese products, which for her, a Toyota owner, is a positive thing.

Now, let's take a momentary trip back in time. Say roughly eight months before.

In Osaka, a katcho (section manager) has just stamped his seal of approval on the last of several documents under production for his company's newest entry into the photocopier line. The machine is clearly going to be one of the best on the market and his staff has worked hard to produce promotional and instructional materials that show and explain its many impressive features. Despite its myriad functions, the copier is simple to operate — so simple, in fact, he proudly tells his staff that "even a woman will have no trouble using it." That theme (and attitude) runs throughout most of the copier's literature. To emphasize the point, the sales brochure shows an attractive model in a sleek red dress happily pushing buttons and carrying reams of paper. The katcho studies the pictures approvingly and smiles to himself.

• Right into the circular file with a satisfying 'clunk!'

Back to the present at Company X, the purchasing officer picks up the brochure and is irritated to see cheesecake photographs of a rather buxom young woman, wearing a too-tight dress that would be more appropriate at a cocktail party. Inside she sees an illustration of a hurrying "office girl" bringing copies to her pipe-smoking boss. Here and there are references to "businessmen" and "your hardworking secretary." Steaming a bit now, the purchasing officer starts hunting for more evidence of sexual stereotyping. She opens the operator's guide and is greeted with more of the same: "For more information, call your photocopier salesman." "If paper jamming repeats, a qualified repairman should be called." And more than once, "the user ... his." Becoming increasingly angry, she looks and easily finds more. Disgusted, she shakes her head at the offensive materials, drops them with a satisfying "clunk!" into the circular file next to her desk, and reaches for the sales literature of the next copier maker.

And as she narrows her choices to three, back in Osaka the katcho sleeps soundly after a long day of work on documents for the next, more advanced photocopier. This time they found an even more attractive model, he thought delightedly as he drifts off to sleep.

• Getting rid of 'red-flag words,' 'WASPs,' and other obnoxious pests

Let's take a closer look at the ways that sexual and racial stereotyping can rear its nasty head even in the (otherwise) most-professionally written technical documents. Basically, it comes in four ways: choice of words, choice of images and illustrations, choice of examples, and — here's one you might never have thought of — choice of names.

"Red-flag words" are those that invite a negative reaction from the reader. Some words, like "office girl," will set more teeth on edge than, say, "businessman." Yet both should be avoided. The first demeans a large number of workers who hold down a position that can be more neutrally and respectfully described as "assistant." The same can be said about the Japanese use of the job title "office lady," or "OL." Using the word "businessman" (as in, "You can become a more successful businessman...") sins in a different way by ignoring that women as well hold down jobs where they, too, can be successful.

The use of "he," "his," or "him" as a generic pronoun (that is, one that is meant to include both sexes, as in: "If the user is not familiar with HTML programming, he should find a suitable instruction book") is older than Shakespeare. Yet, as with "businessman," it also has the effect of suggesting that women have a subsidiary or non-existent role in the world of men. As well, it has the effect of inferring (as in this example) that women would not (or should not) undertake to learn HTML.

(The adoption of the male pronoun in this way has an interesting origin, as pointed out in The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing for Writers, Editors, and Speakers: "The male authors of these earliest English grammars wrote for male readers in an age when few women were literate. The masculine-gender pronouns... reflected the reality of male cultural dominance and the male-centered world view that resulted. Males were perceived as the standard representatives of the human species, females as something else.")
*By Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Lippincot & Crowell, 1980.

Happily, there is a simple solution that came along with the effort to make user manuals seem more "friendly." Often you can write the pronoun out of a sentence by substituting the word "you" for "the user" and dressing up the sentence a little. Try it on the HTML sentence above and see. Another way, of course, is to add "or she," but that form becomes tedious if there tends to be repetitions of "he or she" in the same or closely following paragraphs.

What are some of the other "red-flag" words you should avoid? At the end of this article is a short quiz you can take to test your own sensitivity to potentially offensive words. A number are listed there.

• Images, photos, and illustrations

Sexy models — female or male — have no place in user guides or even brochures, regardless of their eye-catching appeal. (Ever wonder whether some of the more sexy ads and sales literature fail miserably because everyone is too busy looking at breasts or biceps rather than the product?) Smart- and efficient-looking men and women do belong, but there's a lot more to be considered than whether too much thigh is shown.

Try taking a census of the pictures and illustrations in your own company's publications that went to the United States last year, including advertising. Look at it from the following points:

1. What percentage were women? Men?

2. What percentage were WASP and what were black, Asian, Latin, or other minorities?

3. Of the women and non-WASPs, what percentage were depicted as being the boss or manager as opposed to secretary, service personnel, or other non-executive?

4. If two or more staff are shown together, which is more predominantly featured or seems to have a dominant role?

And, even:

5. When only a person's hands are shown, what percentage are white and what percentage are apparently male?

Obviously no one actually expects you to count all this up. A quick thumb-through probably will make the same point. If your pages are typical you will see that men are overwhelmingly dominant in photos and illustrations as well as in the writing.

• Use examples and names (like Sharene, Tony and Naiomi)

Using examples of real-life situations is an excellent way to explain the operation of some software and many types of equipment, such as electronic cash registers. For instance, you might write: "Bill takes an order for 5 soft drinks, 3 hamburgers, and 2 orders of french fries by pressing the following preprogrammed keys." Such examples are easier to understand and make the instructions seem more true-to-life. Yet if you don't watch yourself as you people your ECR (or other) manual, you may end up depicting the fast-food, restaurant, or retail industries as places where only Bills and Marys work (two very WASPish names) while Sharene (black), Maria (Hispanic), Tony (Italian-American), Naiomi (Japanese-American), and other minorities are apparently collecting unemployment.

The fact is, minorities in many areas of the U.S. are precisely who are manning (excuse me: operating) the cash registers. Why suggest that they are not, when you ought to be trying to reach these very people? You do that by using names with which they can more easily identify.

• What's your SBQ?

To finish, here's a little test* to help you determine the SBQ (Sexual Bias Quotient) of your own writing:

*Developed by the Brumfield Center for Hard-to-Find Facts.

1) Circle the words you normally might use to describe each job category.
a) Waiter/waitress b) Food server
a) Businessman b) Businessperson
a) Businesswoman b) Businessperson
a) Repairman b) Service personnel
a) OL or office girl b) Office assistant
a) Salesman b) Sales representative
a) Secretary b) Administrative aide
a) Deliveryman b) Delivery person
a) Mailman b) Postal worker
a) Foreman b) Supervisor
2) From each line circle the noun or adjective you would most likely select.
a) Workmanlike job b) Well-done job
a) Craftsman b) Craftsperson
a) Housewife b) Homemaker
a) Mankind b) Humankind
a) Man-made b) Manufactured
a) Manhours b) Hours of preparation
a) Manhandle b) Handle roughly
a) Suit pocket b) Pocket
3) Which of the paired sentences do you consider acceptable?
a) Everyone raised his voice in song. b) The congregation began to sing.
a) If you have a friend or relative who would like to join, have him fill out the coupon below and make his check payable to... b) If you have a friend or relative who would like to join, have him or her fill out the coupon below and make their check payable to...
a) The dolphin, a friendly and talkative creature, has a built-in sonar system of his own. b) The dolphin, a friendly and talkative creature, has a built-in sonar system of its own.
a) The salutation Dear Sir is always permissable when addressing a person not known to the writer. b) The salutation Dear Madam or Dear Sir is always permissable when addressing a person not known to the writer.

• So, how'd you score?

If you picked all "B"s (perhaps you noticed the pattern?) you don't have a male-biased bone in your body.

If you picked even one "A," you're probably average. And that, in today's technical writing world, means you failed. But that's okay ... it's never too late to change!

Copyright © The Technical Writer Magazine. All rights reserved.

Go Back


Company Background

Windows Inc. is a corporate and technical publishing company located in central Tokyo within the city's financial district. Established in January 1989, Windows has an in-house staff of publishing professionals with long experience in writing, editing, translation, design, computer illustrating, typesetting, and web publishing in English, Japanese, and European languages.

Services We Offer

Support Wikipedia