Do the words you use matter?
We’re not talking about whether the words you use are in the right tense, or grammatically correct, more the choice of words you use on a daily basis.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is Break the Bias – and as a language-learning platform, we’d like to help explain how language could help us all do this better.
In a nutshell, gendered language includes terms and phrases that are obviously masculine or feminine.
For example, the job titles of policeman, fireman or dinner lady immediately make you assume that these roles are only for a certain sex without really thinking about it (unconscious bias). We all know that anyone can do pretty much anything if they put their mind to it.
It’s not just having -man or -woman at the end of a job title that infers a particular gender to that role. Words ending in -ess also pertain to a woman in that particular role, such as Air Stewardess, when we could use the much simpler, neutral term of Flight Attendant.
Can the use of gendered language contribute to gender bias?
Could using gendered language shape the way we see the world?
Does it impact how we treat people and the assumptions we make about their job, culture or status in society?
Anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and his former student Benjamin Whorf seem to think so. They created the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis) which states that “how we look at the world is largely determined by our thought processes, and our language limits our thought processes.” First developed in 1929, it refers to how sexist language can influence our culture, its values, beliefs, and the way we view our society as a whole.
English is considered to be a neutral language, which is different to other gendered languages spoken around the world like French, Spanish, Arabic and Hindi, where traditionally everything is either masculine or feminine, including objects.
But the English language has plenty of examples of gender-biased words and phrases, and these do impact how we treat people and pre-existing thoughts about how people of each gender should behave in society.
Have you ever heard the phrase “you’re crying like a girl” or “man up”?
The first suggests that only girls cry and it’s a weakness for a boy or man to show his emotions in this way and the second suggests that in order to be brave and fearless, you have to be a man. These are gender-based stereotypes that contribute to gender bias.
In the workplace, common phrases that at one time might be heard around the office could include the description of a female colleague in a position of authority.
Perhaps she would be referred to as ‘bossy’ or ‘forward’, but a male counterpart might be described as ‘assertive’ or ‘straight-talking’.
You can start to see how the language you use could be gender-biased…
Interestingly, in one of the few role reversals we could find, midwifery is one of the very few (if not the only) job title that is still applied when the role is taken by a male. He would still be referred to as ‘midwife’, or if the gender needs to be defined further, a male midwife.
When you see these words all together, the phrase ‘think before you speak’ never made more sense!
We know that sometimes we’ll get it wrong, but we’re always striving to do our best and get it right.
Help us to continue to do better and break the bias by letting us know if you notice any errors in our language courses. You can get in touch with us here.
Federico Fellini, celebrated Italian filmmaker
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