Let's talk about sex: tackling gendered language

Challenging gender bias and stereotypes through the written word

If you happen to study language and gender, you’ll find that most academic papers on the subject include some reference to Robin Lakoff. She became a big deal within academia in the 1970s through her studies on male and female language, what she termed ‘women’s talk’ and the notion that a woman’s subordinate role in a male-dominated society is reflected in the language she uses.

Lakoff’s claims have since been widely disputed, not least because her theory was largely based on anecdotal and personal observations rather than solid evidence. However, Lakoff was one of the first to draw attention to a link between gender inequality and language, providing a springboard for the wealth of research that has followed over the past 45 years.

A lot may have changed since the 1970s, but the fact remains that gender bias and stereotyping still very much exist in the language used today in both the spoken and written word. One way that we can address this is by raising our awareness of gender stereotyping, making a conscious effort to avoid terms that reinforce gender biases and including more gender inclusive words in our written content.

"Does the odd word really make that much difference?"

The problem is that words are not just words. Words have the power to shape beliefs and, in turn, our beliefs shape our words. What we say and what we write contributes to the formation of societal norms and, therefore, can reinforce wider issues of inequality.

A classic example is the use of female descriptors when referring to job roles. It is argued that when we stipulate a ‘female’ surgeon, a ‘female’ engineer, working ‘mum’ etc, we are inferring that it’s not the norm that these roles belong more to men than they do women.

"But there are male stereotypes too!"

True. It can work both ways. You will have, no doubt, heard or read men described as a ‘manny’ (male nanny) or a ‘male nurse’. However, these kinds of labels tend to be used with lower-status, less well-paid positions, further perpetuating the belief (subconscious or otherwise) that roles typically associated with women are not considered as powerful or influential as traditionally male-dominated jobs,

Of course, it’s not as simple as just removing an adjective to solve the issue of gender inequality, and, in some instances, highlighting that a role belongs to a woman is seen as inspiring and a nod to female empowerment. The way I see it, it’s all about context. Is it relevant? Does it serve a necessary purpose?

Gender bias in print

It may not always be blatantly obvious, but research provides evidence of continued gender bias and stereotyping within society, which can be reinforced by those who write for a public readership.

For example, a 2019 peer-reviewed study of Irish newspapers over a 15-year period looked at articles relating to male and female politicians for signs of gender bias. Examples of gender bias against females outweighed that of males. For instance:

  • There were more stories of a personal nature relating to female politicians than their male counterparts, including references to family roles and relationships.

  • The female politicians' gender was mentioned significantly more often than with male politicians.

  • There were more examples of the females’ style of politics and communication being portrayed in a negative light.

Examples of gender bias in a news article could include focusing on irrelevant information like a woman’s appearance and relationship or parenting status, when this wouldn’t be mentioned if the story was about a man.

Small steps to make a big difference

Gender bias and stereotyping are not going to disappear overnight, but making a conscious effort to stop and think about the language we’re using is a really great step in the right direction.

Here are some simple ways you can make your own writing more gender inclusive:

  • Before using a gendered descriptor (e.g. female, male, woman, man, mum, dad) consider its relevance and what purpose it serves in the given context.

  • Avoid clichéd turns of phrase like ‘cry/fight/run/throw like a girl’, ‘you need to man up’ and ‘the right man for the job’.

  • Make sure terms of address for men and women have the same level of formality, avoiding examples like ‘Mr Jones and his wife, Sarah’.

  • Swap less inclusive words like ‘mankind’ and ‘manpower’ for more gender-neutral alternatives such as ‘humanity’ and ‘staffing’.

Some links to useful resources:

United Nations: Gender inclusive language guidance

European Parliament: Guide to gender-neutral language

Government of Canada: Gender-inclusive language for correspondence

Jessica Brown is a freelance non-fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She is currently studying for a master's in applied linguistics with a focused interest in language and gender studies. For enquiries, email jessica@jkbproofreading.co.uk

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