Let’s talk about gendered language


Artwork from Amplifer Art — Rommy Torrico, “Realizing Democracy is a year-long learning series led by The Ford Foundation reimagining the relationship among civil society, government, and the economy — and asking what it would take to realize the full promise of democracy in the United States. To learn more and engage, visit realizingdemocracy.org.”

Note: Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Please take a moment to learn about the civil rights leader and his impact on our communities. If you are in Seattle the NW African American Museum has an event — King Day, a great chance to learn more and support our Black and African American community. 

I’m about to wade into a topic I don’t know a lot about. Learning about gender and its impact on society and communities is a social construct I have a lot of learning to do. Many generous people have helped me become aware of the importance of gender, and in particular gender in language. With this new awareness comes a need to learn more, admit what I don’t know, and to practice learning. I’m veering a little off my normal topics of race, since gender is another important topic for me and many others to think about and grow into better practices.

This blog post isn’t about gender pronouns. Other people have written more extensively on that topic, please read some of the articles and use people’s pronouns.

Over the past few months I’ve noticed I use a lot of gendered language. There are many times I default to saying “you guys,” or other obviously male/female language. When I write I’ve slipped in words such as manpower, dude, freshman, actor, landlord, etc. In some ways all of these words denote men/male. Such as manpower, clearly says ‘man’ when I should say staffing power or person power instead. The words landlord and actor are a little less gendered but I included them since they are the male version of the words that have become commonplace in our English language – actor vs actress, landlord vs landlady. Freshman, is a very common term to denote a first-year student or first year in a position, the ‘man’ in the word skews towards thinking about men/males.

Defaulting to certain words that denote gender automatically and underhandedly creates power and sometimes class imbalances. Such as saying chairman implies men, including white men, are at the top. Gender laced words also leave out people who do not fall into the female/male binary, such genderfluid, intersex, or transgender people.

Why this matters

Recently, I was looking at some data point about teaching gender and sexuality in schools. A percentage of survey respondents said they don’t want schools teaching about gender and sexuality. As I read this data point, I thought, “Do they realize gender and sexuality are being taught every day whether they like it or not?” Every day children are exposed to gender-norms and terminology when they hear someone say, “Boys and girls,” “that is a boy toy,” “girls can do anything.” All these phrases are seemingly innocent, but they unmistakably are teaching messages about gender, gender roles, and feel inclusive or othering to different people. This doesn’t just happen in schools. Online shopping, there are often categories such as “boy clothes,” “girl toys,” etc. These beliefs are everywhere. Just like race, not talking about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact our daily lives.

In some cultures and languages, gender is interwoven into the language or alternatively not. When I was learning to speak and read Japanese, the honorific is gender-neutral, such as Miyagi-san when referring to Mr. Miyagi in the movie the Karate Kid. In English we would use Mr., Ms., etc. having to choose the appropriate title to go with gender. My friend James gave me a mini-lesson Vietnamese language. He explained in the Vietnamese language we have to think about age and positionality as well as gender in referring to others and substitute the word “I” for the speakers positionality. As James explained in this example he would say: “Hi older sister Erin, what time should younger brother call older sister to follow-up?” These cultural nuances are important and equally important to understand why some people might appear to be resistant to change, but really the language and culture change being asked for is a very new concept and sometimes the language and cultural norms need to change as well.

The language we use sends messages about who is included and not included. This can have real implications in who we hire, who feels included in classrooms, healthcare, positions of leadership.  Saying phrases like “boys and girls” sends a message on who is in a position of power, who is included and isn’t, and so on. In a job description saying he/she, may unintentionally screen out many qualified applicants. Or listing in a job description “generous maternity leave,” doesn’t feel very inclusive to many families without ‘mothers.’ I remember seeing a Facebook post by a POC organization advertising for a new Executive Director. In their posting they added the hashtags #womenofcolor and #mothersofcolor. By adding these hashtags they may have been meant to encourage women and mothers in to applying, but they were also leaving out many other qualified candidates, who do not identify as a women or a mother and may have had many relevant leadership skills.

What to do

As I mentioned earlier this has been a learning journey for me. Even sharing this blog post publicly is a little frightening for me since I know this isn’t a topic I understand well. I have a lot of learning to do, and writing this has forced me to reflect, do some research and thinking, and I’ve learned more. I also encourage you to do more of your own research since this post is not going deep into the topic at all. If this is an area of strength for you, thank you for your work, teaching, and patience with people like me who are learning.

The first step for me was being aware of how gender is showing up in my language, once I recognized my tendencies I am finding over time I am able to shift away from certain words and phrases, such as saying “you guys,” “dude!,” and other gendered phrases. I’ve been working on using they/them in place of he/him and her/she as well. It hasn’t been easy and I still slip a lot, but the more I am conscious of these tendencies the easier it will be to self-correct. I’ve also learned from watching others who model this very effectively replacing gendered language with terms such as folx (or folks), friends instead of boys and girls, neighbors or kin in place of brothers and sisters.

If you want to extend your learning look up articles and YouTube videos related gender neutral language, there are many.

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