Here’s the thing: English is sexist. Yes, our culture swells with sexist tropes and ideologies, but it’s beyond that. In English, the words we use to define and describe the world around us are sexist.
In her piece “Linguistic Sexism: An Overview of the English Language in Everyday Discourse,” Nneka Umera-Okeke discusses how the history of the English language is ripe with patriarchal values, which bleeds into modern English.
Umera-Okeke says, “Language articulates consciousness, reflects culture, and affects socialization… Sexism is built into the way the language is structured, and the very concepts each of us uses to describe ideas about language” (Umera-Okeke, 2012).
Our culture and beliefs saturate the words we use, so we must understand how our words deliver biases, whether intended or not. Let’s start with the basics. The way words are structured and their relationship to other words favors male likeness. Umera-Okeke discusses,
“Naming practices for women and men are often asymmetrical. In linguistics, markedness refers to the way words are changed or added to give special meaning. The unmarked choice is just the normal meaning. The male term is for the most part unmarked while the female term is marked. It is created by adding a bound morpheme to the male term or by combing the male term with a word referring to female. In English, derivational morphemes are mainly prefixes and suffixes. These affixes often change the part of the stem. The affixes thereby help us to identify relationships within words. The female term is seen as the marked term and the male as the unmarked one,” (2012).
Even in daily life, you find that the base form of words is masculine. An actor is male; an actress is female. There are princes; then there are princesses. At a restaurant, the person who greets you is a host; unless they’re a female, then they’re a hostess. Men play golf; women play women’s golf. Feminism has allowed the marked words to drop down to the male form to capture all genders, but when we drop the female version, we make women invisible.
Things as simple as titles perpetuate bias. For men, they are generally called “Mr.” or “Sir.” Women, on the other hand, have many different options. “Miss” is a young, unmarried woman. “Mrs.” is married. “Ma’am” is an older woman. While subtle, these titles force women to hold their value for men.
There are countless expressions we use that perpetuate sexism, as well. Here are some examples:
- “To man up” – It means that the receiver, the one told to “man up,” should embody the traditional male qualities of being strong, confident, and aggressive. This phrase implies that the person needing to “man up” is acting feminine, which is undesirable.
- “To grow a pair (of balls)” – This suggests the necessity of male genitalia to become tough and able to do the task at hand.
- “Man and wife” – The traditional phrase to announce an official marriage is “man and wife,” which suggests that not only is a boy becoming a man when he marries a woman, but also that the woman loses her humanity in marriage, becoming the formal property of the man.
- “Maiden name” – The term itself is outdated and suggests that a “maiden,” or young woman, has forsaken her family name and is now the property of her husband.
- “Boys will be boys” – This is a common excuse for young boys who do things wrong, whereas, little girls do not get the same defense. “Boys will be boys” unfairly implies that you can’t teach boys to have different behaviors or mannerisms, so there’s no use in trying. It maintains stereotypes that “boys are rough and can’t control themselves or control their urges just because of their sex” (Vargas, 2019).
- “To wear the pants in the relationship” – Typically, this implies that whoever is “wearing the pants” is the dominant one. Dominance is traditionally associated with men, and it insinuates that every relationship needs a power dynamic of a masculine partner and a feminine partner.
The Oxford Research Encyclopedia published Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini’s “Gender Bias and Sexism in Language,” where they wrote, “Linguistic abstraction is a very subtle resource used to represent women in a less favorable way and thus enacts gender discrimination without meaning to discriminate or even be aware that this linguistic behavior has discriminatory results” (2017). We must discuss the enforcement of sexism because its silence has echoing consequences.
I’m assuming that most of us mean no harm when we greet a group of people by saying, “Hey, guys.” When saying something like that, we need to notice the value we put on men – and in turn, the lack of importance on women. Saying “Hey, girls” to a group of men and women would be strange, so why is it acceptable to use the male term and not the female? Instead of a waiter/waitress, why can’t we call that person a server?
Essentially, we need to understand the power of the words we use. We shape our perception of the world around words, so being conscious of our unintended bias is a great step towards equality. As women in business, we seek out ways to make our voices, and our words, heard. If you are looking to build up your brand’s voice or social media presence, schedule your consultation today!
Gender bias and sexism in language
Linguistic sexism: an overview of the English language
7 Phrases you didn’t realize have sexist meanings