In my 7th grade Spanish class, we were learning about using gendered forms of “they” to describe groups. The lesson, in a nutshell, was that if a group consisted of females, the feminine “ellas” would be used. If the group contained a male, the masculine “ellos” would be used. By this rule, if a room filled with thousands of women contained just one man, the masculine form would have to be utilized. I just couldn’t comprehend why 1,000,000 women would be labeled differently because of one man. So, I asked my teacher – who usually answered questions with a comprehensive explanation – only to receive the answer: “that’s just how it is”.
Although this was not my first time recognizing sexism embedded in language, it was the first time I was able to label it as such. At age 6, I found it peculiar that “mankind” referred to all genders, and by middle school I was simply annoyed when told to “man the fundraising booth” or worse, to “man up”. By the time I took linguistic psychology and studied more foreign languages, I was able to comfortably brand these common and seemingly hidden biases within a multitude of tongues as sexist language.
Sexist language is defined as language that excludes a sex or suggests the superiority of one sex over the other. In English, instances include using “he” as a generic pronoun, using man as a verb, gendering professions and titles, marking, stereotyping, and attaching unrequired suffixes. Similar examples can be found in languages from Swahili to Korean, and even in languages without masculine or feminine pronouns. Such discrepancies can negatively impact all sexes and both reflect and project oversimplified images for us to follow.
What we say and hear has a deep impact on us, which is why using gender-inclusive and neutral language is so important. When we speak with generic masculine pronouns or use adjectives considered more masculine or feminine, we are promoting stereotypes and drawing lines between what a man is expected to be and what a woman is expected to be. This creates a whole host of issues, from unfairly defining what a person is allowed to do, to ignoring the existence of non-binary gender altogether.
Luckily, this issue has a solution that is already beginning to be adopted. Policemen and women are police officers, female doctors are simply doctors, and he/she is commonly used on agreements and forms. Despite these growing efforts to curb language that may be discriminatory towards a certain gender, however, the concept is still prevalent in the majority of languages.
On an individual level we can work to decrease the amount of this we see by using alternative phrases, and being cognizant of our own stereotypes that can lead to the prevalence of this language in the first place.
One of the most important things one can do to take action is to take the issue seriously and try to change preexisting habits little by little while encouraging others to do the same. I’ve witnessed speakers discuss the magnitude of subtly sexist language and receive sniggers from their crowd, read heated dismissal of related posts online, and seen ignorance of the problem in daily conversation. Facing these obstacles and being careful with labels and differentiating words is the first and biggest step, and can result in meaningful improvement.
If I could go back to that one lesson in 7th grade Spanish, I wouldn’t stay silent after my teacher’s hesitant response. Instead of accepting “that’s just how it is”, I can now confidently answer, “but it doesn’t have to be”.