General Guidelines

Updated: March 31, 2023

Gender is not synonymous with sex. According to the AP Stylebook, gender refers to a person’s social identity, whereas sex refers to biological characteristics.

Since not everyone falls in the category of “male/man” or “female/woman,” refer to a “person” or “people,” if appropriate, or use the term “nonbinary” if the subject requests to be referred to as such.

Transgender is an adjective (so modifying man or woman—as in transgender mantransgender woman) in Western cultures that refers to someone whose assigned sex at birth does not match their gender identity. AP allows the use of trans on second reference and in headlines. Do not use transgender as a noun or use the term transgendered.

Many non-Western cultures, especially indigenous cultures, include genders that fall outside the man/woman binary or genders that aren’t automatically correlated to assigned sex at birth. Examples include Native Hawaiian people who are mahu, Zapotec people who are muxe, and Diné (Navajo) people who are nádleehí. Refrain from assuming that these people identify as trans and/or nonbinary, as those terms may not encompass or accurately describe these identities. Instead, ask the person how they would like to be described.

Cisgender is an adjective that refers to someone whose assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity.

Note: When interviewing someone or otherwise referring to someone, ask the individual how they want to be described (e.g., male, female, man, woman, transgender, gender fluid, nonbinary, etc.). Ask the individual for their pronouns of reference to be used when referring to them (e.g., he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs). Some transgender people do not use pronouns at all and only go by their names. Ask, too, if there are any terms they ask ​not be used in reference to them and in what cases.

Do not “out” transgender people and only include that they are transgender in content if they give explicit permission.

  • First-year student: UI style is to use “first-year student” instead of “freshman.”
  • Alumna/us: A woman who has graduated from a school takes the Latin term alumna. To reference a man, alumnus is used. For two or more women, the proper term is alumnae. If two people who are both men, a man and a woman, or both gender-neutral are referenced, the correct term is alumni. Alum is the singular, gender-neutral term.
  • Gender and race/ethnicity: When interviewing someone or referring to them in content, ask the individual how they prefer to be referred to (e.g., Chicana/o/x, Latina/o/x, etc.) See the section on race and ethnicity for more information.

Gender-inclusive pronouns

Since there is no gender-inclusive term in English for a single person, and using one is overly formal for most types of content.

In March 2017, the Associated Press voted to accept the singular they (as well as them/their) as a gender-neutral pronoun when he/she or her/him is not accurate. Use the singular they when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and/or when referring to a specific, known person who prefers they as their pronoun of reference.

You may wonder about when to use he or she (or both, or if you should alternate he and she). Use this guidance:

  • The AP Stylebook advises against “(presuming) maleness in constructing a sentence.” If you can reword a sentence to avoid gender, that’s ideal. If that’s not possible, you may opt to use “they” or “their” to indicate that the gender of the individual referenced is either not known or the reference applies to any gender.

As stated above, when interviewing someone or otherwise referring to someone, ask the individual how they prefer to be identified (e.g., male, female, man, woman, transgender, gender fluid, nonbinary). Ask the individual for their pronouns of reference (e.g., he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs). Ask, too, if there are any terms they request ​not be used in reference to them and in what instances.

An exception to avoid using only men/women or male/female (a binary reference) would be in a reference where men/women or male/female are necessary for accuracy, as in the case of a study that included men and women. 

  • Use of multiple pronoun sets: Some people use multiple sets of pronouns, such as both she/her and they/them, or xe/xim and he/him. Some people also are comfortable with any pronouns used. In this situation, ask which pronouns to use in which circumstances, and if the subject has a preferred frequency of use for each set of pronouns.
  • Mx: Though the Oxford English Dictionary accepts Mx as a gender-neutral alternative to Mr., Mrs., or Ms., the AP Stylebook doesn’t use these courtesy titles so does not offer guidance on the use of Mx. UI style follows AP Style and doesn’t use courtesy titles.
  • Non-gender suffix: Consider using the suffix -person (e.g., spokesperson instead of spokesman) in your writing to avoid presuming maleness. Use of chair in place of chairman, chairwoman, or chairperson. Ask the person whose title you’re referencing what they prefer as well, if possible. Be aware, too, of words that use -ess and denote femaleness, such as stewardess or hostess. When possible, choose a gender-neutral alternate, such as flight attendant or firefighter.
  • Describing oppression of a certain group: When discussing instances of oppression that certain groups (often women) may face, consider how trans and non-binary people fit into this.
    • Instead of saying pregnant women, say pregnant people.
    • Instead of women’s health rights, say reproductive rights.
    • Instead of feminine hygiene products, say menstrual products.

Terms to avoid

  • Normal/norm (to refer to people who are not transgender, gender fluid, nonbinary)
  • Sex change (preferred terms: sex reassignment, gender transition)
  • Sexual preference
  • Transsexual (preferred term: transgender or trans, and should only be used adjectivally)
  • Tranny (this is a harmful slur and should always be avoided)
  • Transvestite (preferred term: cross-dresser)
  • Pronoun(s) of preference (preferred term: pronoun of reference). Pronouns represent who a person is, not a choice they’re making or who they prefer to be.

Download the Guide

Download a PDF of the University of Iowa DEI Style Guide