Since the rise of feminism in the 20th century, native English speakers have become more aware of the importance of appropriate language in the fight for equality. The languages we speak help shape our views of the world, thus languages containing sexism create an unequal playing field for females and males. The effort to eliminate sexism in English is now so ingrained in Western culture that students or employees using blatant sexism are often expelled from their places of study/work, thus it is vital for international students to be aware of these issues before moving to an English-speaking country. Here are 6 ways you can avoid using sexism in English:
1. Gendered Nouns
For most nouns in English – teacher, cat, child – there is no way of telling whether the subject is male or female. There are, however, some nouns that specifically state the gender of the subject. In many cases, these are harmless and their existence is logical – boy, woman, ram – but in the case of job roles, most linguists are in agreement that specifying the gender of the worker is irrelevant and harmful to equality. Not long ago, aeroplane passengers would receive their food from stewardesses and stewards. Supporters of gender equality pointed out the irrelevance of differentiating these roles based on gender, and airlines responded by changing the terminology to flight attendants.
Most job roles are ungendered – nurse, doctor, secretary – but some positions still have specific titles depending on the gender of the worker. Pay special attention to any job with the suffix woman or man at the end of it. Policewoman and Policeman are now seen as outdated, with police officer the preferred term. Where no new term exists, replace the word man or woman with person. Although you may occasionally hear people use chairman or chairwoman, I recommend using chairperson as a more inclusive alternative. Similarly, terms such as female manager and manageress are seen as antiquated, and EFL speakers should avoid them at all costs. There is no reason to change the word manager to inform the listener of the manager’s gender.
2. Stereotypical Roles
While the use of stereotypical job roles is more societal than linguistic, the EFL industry has a lot to learn about the equal representation of men and women. Numerous studies (like this excellent paper from Soti Vogli) have found a tendency for EFL textbooks to portray women in subordinate roles to men, e.g. male CEOs talking to female secretaries, and female nurses running errands for male doctors. When giving hypothetical examples, it is important not to fall into the trap of always apportioning certain jobs to a specific gender. Doing so helps maintain the glass ceiling, by subconsciously implanting the idea that women are only suited to certain roles. When making examples in your work, try to ensure that each role is evenly split between women and men.
Although Western societies have made some progress in the fight to remove gender bias in English, one aspect of the language that has barely changed is the convention of naming the male first in a female-male partnership. He or she, him and her, men and women are much more commonly heard than she or he, her and him, women and men. This male firstness adds to the linguistic oppression of women, with men more frequently occupying the more prominent first position. Most collocations with the female term first are family-based (mum and dad; aunt and uncle), which suggests women are mainly given linguistic prominence in the family arena. To avoid the convention of male firstness, try mixing up the order with which you use these terms. You should say, “There are lots of girls and boys,” with the same frequency you say, “There are lots of boys and girls.” This is especially important with children, as male firstness at a young age can give girls a feeling or inferiority and boys a sense of superiority, thus fuelling the cycle of gender inequality.
One small step for (a) man. One giant leap for mankind.
In the past, maleness was almost always used as the default when talking about a hypothetical person, e.g. “If a person is hungry, he should eat,” but nowadays this is seen as archaic. There is no consensus as to what a third person ungendered pronoun should be, but the most commonly used are:
- he or she
- she or he
In the above example, you can replace the word he with any of the above three terms. In written English, s/he is the option I prefer.
Lastly, the use of words like man and mankind (to denote all humanity) ignore the existence of women. Gender neutral terms like humankind and people are increasingly common these days. If Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon in 2016, I like to think he would have said, “One giant leap for humankind.”
Like stereotypical job roles, the issue of appearance is more of a cultural issue than a linguistic one, but with language and culture being indivisible, I felt it was essential to include this section. In many societies, it is normal to comment on a person’s appearance, but in the West this is a controversial issue. I have been in many workplaces in Korea, where an employee has told a new colleague she is beautiful, or commented that someone has “become fat.” Openly commenting on someone’s appearance like this in the UK or Canada could lead to you being fired from your job for sexual harassment. Complimenting someone’s clothes or saying they look nice may be acceptable in some places, but using words relating to inherent appearance (e.g. handsome, pretty, ugly, beautiful) is definitely not. My advice: avoid commenting on someone’s appearance, unless that person is very close to you, e.g. a partner or family member.
6. Unequal Terms
The English language is littered with unequal terminology for men and women, so much so, that the word woman is often perceived as an unflattering way to describe someone (with lady being preferred), whereas there are no such negative connotations with the word man. Animal terms also cause a lot of linguistic inequality. Calling a man a dog is a usually a light-hearted term between friends (with many different definitions, but usually describing a promiscuous man). Compare this to calling a woman a dog, which is an offensive term about her appearance. Such unequal terms are extremely offensive and should not be used under any circumstances.
As well as unequal terms, unequal attitudes to the sexes are also looked down upon in polite society. A promiscuous man is often described as a stud, which is a positive, light-hearted term. On the other hand, a promiscuous woman will often find herself labelled a slut, which is an incredibly offensive word. Thankfully, most Western societies are taking steps to eradicate such sexism, and it’s becoming increasingly common to see people getting fired for using such terms.
Speaking a second language can be stressful at times, but try not to worry too much. I have heard students innocently use incredibly offensive terms before, but most native speakers will understand the first time you accidentally uses an offensive phrase. When in doubt, just ask whether a word or phrase is offensive. Most people will be more than happy to help.
Does your language have ingrained sexism in it? Are women and men treated equally linguistically? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.