Voices

Teachers, what is gendered language?

By Jemma Prior

01 March 2017 - 19:00

What exactly is gendered language and why should you warn language learners about it? Jemma Prior explains, ahead of her online seminar on Wednesday, 8 March.

Does 'gendered language' mean words that have genders in certain languages, e.g., ‘la table’ in French, or words that make gendered assumptions, e.g., ‘air hostess’?

English doesn’t really have a grammatical gender as many other languages do. It doesn’t have a masculine or a feminine for nouns, unless they refer to biological sex (e.g., woman, boy, Ms etc).

So gendered language is commonly understood as language that has a bias towards a particular sex or social gender. In English, this would include using gender-specific terms referring to professions or people, such as 'businessman' or 'waitress', or using the masculine pronouns (he, him, his) to refer to people in general, such as 'a doctor should know how to communicate with his patients'.

The use of gendered language, like the examples above, perpetuates what academic Allyson Jule calls 'the historical patriarchal hierarchy that has existed between men and women, where one (man) is considered the norm, and the other (woman) is marked as other – as something quite different from the norm'.

This can lead to women being excluded or rendered invisible. There are examples of this in studies, notably by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, that describe that when people are given words like 'businessman' and 'fireman', the vast majority of them will later describe, illustrate or visualise men doing these jobs.

What is the benefit of teaching gender-neutral language to English learners?

This type of language is no longer acceptable in many sectors of society, so learners should be taught how to avoid it. It is not accepted in academia, research, publishing, and many business contexts – all sectors that learners are often involved in, or will be, once they have left school or university.

It also needs to be taught because many learners' mother tongues are grammatically gendered languages. Saying something like 'a doctor should know how to communicate with his patients' may be perfectly acceptable grammatically for these learners, because in their own language, 'doctor' is probably masculine, from a grammatical perspective.

At what stages of the learning process does it tend to crop up as an issue?

In my experience, it crops up everywhere and at any level. I teach at university level, and it should have been dealt with a long time before learners arrive at their undergraduate studies. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Students are shocked when I bring it up and teach them how to avoid it.

Can you share some techniques for spotting gendered language?

Gendered language is generally not that difficult to spot. However, there are some examples which people may not have considered before.

The most obvious is the use of language that has a bias towards one of the sexes (usually male) for gender-neutral concepts, as in my earlier example, where a gender-neutral subject (a doctor) is assigned a masculine pronoun (his patients). This also includes job titles that are gender-specific such as policeman/policewoman, when there is no need to specify the sex of the person. That’s why we nowadays tend to have gender-neutral terms for professions. In this context, we would use 'police officer'.

Another less obvious instance is the use of words that were once equivalents, but have changed over time because of the way women were – and still are - seen and treated in society. Compare the words in pairs such as 'bachelor' and 'spinster', or 'master' and 'mistress'. You can see that the female word has been rendered less prestigious, or has developed sexual connotations.

One more example is the tendency for the male version to come first in binomials such as 'men and women', 'brothers and sisters', 'boys and girls', or 'Mr and Mrs'. Many words that incorporate the word 'man', such as 'man-made', 'mankind', 'manpower', have perfectly acceptable gender-neutral alternatives: for example, 'artificial' or 'synthetic', 'humankind', and 'workforce'.

Many people who are not sexist would use terms like 'mankind' without a second thought. Why should they avoid these words? 

It’s true that some people may consider finding an alternative for 'mankind' as an example of 'political correctness gone mad', but words like this still exclude women, or make them invisible, and they tend to demean the contribution to society that women have made, and still make today.

In the end, it’s a question of awareness. If we are aware that there are words and expressions that are used on a daily basis in our language, which could cause offence because they tend to demean women and girls and their contribution and roles in society, then we can try to avoid these words. People’s attitudes will be more respectful, and we may create a more tolerant and equal society.

The academic Deborah Cameron writes: 'Anti-feminists are fond of observing that eliminating generic masculine pronouns does not secure equal pay. Indeed it does not – whoever said it would? Eliminating generic masculine pronouns precisely eliminates generic masculine pronouns. And in so doing it changes the repertoire of social meanings and choices available to social actors'.

I think we owe it to all women – our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters – to actively think about the language we use, and choose to use words and expressions that are inclusive and do not belittle, discriminate or cause offence. As teachers, we also have a duty to teach this aspect.

Is this a particular problem with students whose first language has grammatical gender?

I teach in Italy. Most of my students have Italian or German as their first languages, and it is most definitely a problem for these students.

Can you share some practical ways to bring gender-neutral language into your syllabus?

From the research I have done in this subject, I can assure you that mainstream English-language coursebooks don’t teach this aspect of language at all. If teachers want to teach it, they are going to have to do it themselves.

To raise awareness, I often take some of the sentences my students have produced and ask them to tell me what the language problem is. One example I use is: 'A teacher should correct his students' work following clear criteria'. Once the use of 'his' is highlighted, we discuss whether women can be teachers (of course they can) and I bring the assumption of male gender to the students' attention. We then discuss how prevalent the assumption is, and why it might be harmful to women and girls.

Can you share some ways to correct it in a gentle way (so the student doesn’t feel embarrassed and upset)?

This is a topic that needs to be handled delicately, as I have had students react negatively in the past. Some just think it’s ridiculous and political correctness gone mad. Others become offended and feel they are being attacked. Many just don’t understand how harmful this kind of language can be.

During class time, I often try to correct mistakes in a more lighthearted way when they are speaking, and may ask them explicitly whether, for example, only men are teachers or doctors. You don’t need to do this very many times for students to become aware of the issue and learn what to look out for. If they use gendered language in their written work, then I highlight it, together with other general grammar and lexical problems. I encourage them to think of an alternative way to express the concept, which is a good way to stretch and improve their skills.

How big a problem is the use of gendered language?

I think it’s mainly a linguistic problem. As a teacher in Italy, I face this issue at the institutional level and in my classroom, due to English being used by predominately non-native speakers.

Teachers should be aware that if students use gendered language in a context where it's not acceptable, it could cause them problems. I’ll leave you with an anecdote from an article by an English language teacher, Julia Sudo:

'We were discussing something, and I said, “An advanced computer user knows what he needs…”, [when] a female colleague suddenly interrupted, “Are you saying women cannot be advanced computer users?” I thought she was joking and laughed, but then realised I was the only one laughing, and she was looking at me as if I were her personal enemy'.

Gendered language is pervasive, but people aren’t necessarily aware of it. My advice is to keep your eyes and ears open. When you come across it, do something about it.

Jemma Prior has been teaching English to undergraduate students in Italy since 1998. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Register here to attend Jemma's webinar, 'Non-gendered language: how to teach it, should we teach it?' on 8 March - International Women's Day.

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