Sexism is so embedded in our language that we hardly notice it when we speak. We use ‘he’ generically to denote a man or a woman. But we fail to see the impact it has on its listeners. The image formed in their mind is that of a man, and not a woman, even though the probability of the subject being a woman is the same.
This unconscious association of any activity with men other than the ones traditionally assigned to women like cooking is the starting point of all discrimination. Take for example the following statement: “Any cricketer who plays for his country would be mighty proud of the fact”. Nothing seems to be wrong with this statement but for the significant usage of ‘his’. The image that comes to our mind is that of a Virat Kohli or Jasprit Bumrah, but it could easily have been Mithali Raj or Harmanpreet Kaur!
There is an interesting point made by Prewitt-Freilino who says that countries that speak a predominantly gendered language should evidence less gender equality relative to countries with a gender-less language. Gendered language is where all nouns are classified into masculine or feminine. The more the classification, the more people think in terms of male-female differences, and hence more discrimination.
Words like ‘power’ and ‘daredevilry’ invoke images of men, rarely women.
It is weird to note that the same word can mean different things for a man and a woman. ‘Master’, for example, means a man who owns or commands. But the word for women is ‘mistress’ – which is more often than not used for the ‘other’ woman in a relationship! Examples are plenty but suffice to say that sexually derogatory connotations are more likely to creep up when it comes to women. The word ‘bachelor’ brings to mind an attractive, carefree young man who is eligible for marriage and therefore to be coveted by women. The equivalent word, ‘spinster’, is visualized as an old, ugly and unwanted woman who is so repulsive that men should run away at the very sight of her!
This even manifests itself in cuss words used by society. The female relatives are unnecessarily dragged into the picture and insulted when a man wants to curse another man. How did it even get to be this way?
The origin of sexism in language can be traced back to when societies began to divide occupations among themselves. Men chose those jobs that required strength, lengthy absences from home and adventure. Women, by very means of their physicality, stayed at home for child rearing and providing food. The languages developed accordingly. Over time, men came to be associated with power, bravery and success while women were relegated as weak and sentimental beings. The languages incorporated these beliefs and in turn, reinforced them in people’s minds. It has now reached a point where words like ‘power’ and ‘daredevilry’ invoke images of men, rarely women.
Feminine words are derived from masculine ones. For example, woman from man, lioness from lion, etc. It is considered that the man is the norm and woman is only a modified form of a man. It is not so strange when we take into account that the religion followed by most English speaking countries is Christianity, which states that the woman was created from the rib bone of a man.
Though awareness of such discrimination is slowly creeping into people’s conscience, that which has taken centuries to develop cannot be undone in a matter of years. The basic composition of the workforce has to change before one can even start to address the problem. The best start is to make a change at the nursery school level. If the idea of gender equality can be planted into the minds of the very young, half the job could be considered done. How parents and primary school teachers speak to children makes a lot of difference.
It is considered that the man is the norm and woman is only a modified form of a man.
Gender neutral words should be used wherever possible. Instead of saying policeman, we could say police officer, a chairperson instead of chairman, etc. This should be done on a regular and continuous basis until it becomes a part of our subconscious minds.
Newspaper reporting is one area where major changes need to be done. The reporting of a crime committed by a man is often very different from that by a woman. The language used to describe the crime of a man, especially against a woman, always implies that the woman was somehow at fault. Though a lot of rules have come into being to prevent bias towards women, language has a lot more to improve.
Societies develop in a totally unpredictable way sometimes. As the gap between gender identities reduce, languages are sure to adapt themselves otherwise they will not survive. There are positive developments like the onset of emojis which are mostly gender neutral. It is everyone’s responsibility to right the wrongs and live up to the high standards we set ourselves. We can do that by being conscious of what and how we speak our everyday language.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Trendolizer