Banish These Words: Sexism and Binarism Edition – Guest Post by Maggie Levantovskaya

By Dr. Maggie Levantovskaya

Maggie Levantovskaya is one of our TPII editors, and a writer and adjunct professor based in the Bay Area.

Let’s talk about sexist language in job application materials. I read countless cover letters, teaching statements, syllabi, postdoc proposals and other docs in my role as editor at The Professor Is In and I continue to encounter terms and phrases that either fit into the category of sexist language or reinforce binary gender norms. First of all, this is something that I see in documents by clients in various fields, though as you can imagine, some fields are bigger offenders than others.

I also find sexist and binary phrasing articulated by clients at all stages in their careers and of different ages. Maybe there is a generational pattern (I haven’t gathered the data) but I see PhD candidates who are clearly spending a lot of time in the classroom writing in ways that I know can be avoided.

Clients who are coming from cultural or linguistic contexts where such attention to language is not important or even frowned upon, have an even bigger challenge to learn how to be mindful about the heteropatriarchy of English.

To this end, here is a very short list of phrases and observations that can get folx started in excising at least some of the more egregious examples of sexism and binarism in their job docs and beyond. I’m hoping that others can add to it and keep the conversation going.


Always shocked to see this one in 2018! We have the phrase “first-year student.”


This is going to be hard for some of you to believe, but it’s still out there. Academics are still writing sentences like “We explore the problems that continue to define man,” in their teaching philosophies. Eeeek!

“His or her”

That seems inclusive, right? Well, it’s better than just saying “his” (still happens!). But the phrase also promotes binary views of gender. We have the plurals they / their. Let’s keep working on normalizing that usage for gender neutrality.

“Members of the opposite sex”

I mean, what do I even say!

I also give feedback on syllabi and I constantly see that clients do not say anything about preferred gender pronouns under course policies and rarely mention asking students about their preferred pronouns in teaching philosophies. I realize that syllabi are impossibly long these days, but adding a line like “My preferred pronouns are she/her. Please let me know what yours are and correct me if I ever get them wrong,” is not going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I’m a teacher myself and I put my preferred pronouns into my email signature to signal to students that pronoun usage is not obvious and that we should respect each other’s preferences in this matter.

Another issue that I regularly encounter in client cover letters and teaching philosophies has to do with how they discuss teaching gender norms in the classroom. A lot of our clients teach students to challenge norms and I think that that’s great. The problem is that some of the descriptions of these methods appear, well, problematic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read clients discuss teaching gender by saying something in the vein of “I get students to see that gender is a construct by dressing like a member of the opposite gender and then reflecting on the experience” or “my assignment asks students to interview an LGBTQ+ person.” Some clients say the same thing about homeless, immigrants and other groups.

Now, I don’t know what these clients are actually doing with their students and my job is not to critique their teaching. However, when I see this, I advise clients to avoid language that gamifies gender and sexuality or treats queer people instrumentally and hope that this resonates beyond job doc editing.

There are so many resources about this stuff online! Teen Vogue is telling us how to be gender neutral and many other publications have extremely accessible guides on how to make spaces less hostile for non-binary folx.

It’s 2018. Let’s do better!

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Banish These Words: Sexism and Binarism Edition – Guest Post by Maggie Levantovskaya — 2 Comments

  1. Does everyting need to be on syllabus, really? Can’t instructors tell students on first day how s/he is to be addressed? (pronoums but also, in the context I live – not an English-speaking country- first name rather than Professor, use of less formal pronoums).
    On such occasion, students can be told to inform pronoums to be treated in any occasion and to correct instructor.
    I believe not everyting needs to be so formal in teaching relationships.

  2. Good advice, including the last–check online resources. And regularly. When I updated the materials to hand out to my students, a younger friend gave good advice, including to keep in mind that the conversation on these issues keeps evolving.

    The same friend advised that I not ask students for “preferred pronoun,” but just ask for “pronoun,” so as not to imply that gender identity is a preference or “lifestyle choice.”

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