By Kelly Laycock
With recent events in the news, from the Dalhousie dentistry Facebook scandal to the charges laid against former CBC talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, the topic of gender equality (among other things!) has come to the forefront of our social consciousness. But it isn’t just in Canada; it is a concern on a global level. For those of you who haven’t seen this yet, take a look at Emma Watson speaking at the United Nations in 2014 about the importance of equality for women and a new global campaign called HeForShe. She addresses the misconceptions of the word feminism and expands on the need for male allies within the equality movement. We are all aware that inequality still exists (and not just between the sexes), and while progress has been made in some societies, equal rights is still a global issue that deserves discussion and solutions.
So what I’d like to discuss in this post is the role language plays in the debate and why it is so important to use unbiased language in our writing and speaking. I’m not talking excessive political correctness, where we find ourselves on pins and needles not to offend anyone, ever. What I’m talking about is making choices in our language that represent the reality we want to see. A society where our daughters and sons don’t feel the weight of being stereotyped into antiquated gender roles just because we didn’t take the time to reflect on the impact our choice of words and expressions has on our world view.
So what am I talking about? We don’t have to look very far to see the male dominance in English:
These are all so ingrained, it may seem overly sensitive to mention them, but I was struck speechless when I found this generic use of the word man in Merriam-Websters Dictionary:
2b: the individual who can fulfill or who has been chosen to fulfill one’s requirements <she’s your man>.
Ouch! How far have we come, and we still use this kind of expression in everyday English? Were they trying to be gender neutral by using a feminine pronoun to show it is not specific to men?! That is perhaps even worse. But that’s nothing compared to some. Do these make you as uncomfortable as they make me?
Have you noticed how most expressions of strength involve masculine stereotypes? Perhaps the negativity is more obvious in the contrasting feminine stereotypes of weakness and hysteria. If you are having a hard time understanding why someone might take issue with these expressions (but by now I hope you see my point!), let’s look a little closer at the theory behind unbiased language. When gender-specific terms like he, him and man are used to describe gender-neutral situations, women become invisible.
Clearly, women cannot be seen as equal when they aren’t seen at all. As the Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out in its article entitled “Feminist Philosophy of Language”:
…there is no doubt that a gender-neutral meaning is intended, but this meaning seems unavailable. As a result, the sentences seem ill-formed:
Or how about terms that call attention to a woman’s presence in a position of authority?
What’s wrong with replacing some of these terms with more inclusive language (as suggested by Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, page 411)?
Or what about a few of the guidelines given in The Canadian Style. They suggest:
As a colleague of mine pointed out, when it comes to filling in job applications, women are often still viewed as a minority, despite us being one half the population of the world. They ask you to self-identify as a woman (the same question usually asks if you also want to identify as a visible minority, an Aboriginal person, or a disabled person). I have always found this rather insulting. They call this equal opportunity employment, but what it really points out is the stark reality that women are underemployed in general (not to mention underpaid!) and in order to be considered on an equal footing to men, we are asked to highlight our “weakness” through a government initiative. Way to fill those quotas, ladies.
(Another issue with gender bias inherent in the English language is the lack of a gender neutral pronoun. We’ve talked at length about pronouns in a previous post, so if you are interested in the he/she, s/he, they debate, please click the link.)
Copyeditors (and other professionals in the publishing industry) have long been aware of the use and abuse of biased language. And it’s not all gender related. Einsohn highlights some issues with other biased terminology (page 410):
Copyeditors almost never encounter overt ethnic or racial slurs in manuscripts, but some authors will use derivative terms that may strike some readers as insensitive. Controversies abound: Are colloquial verbs like gyp and welsh (or welch) offensive? Do expressions such as Dutch treat, French letter, and Siamese twins (scientists now use conjoined twins) promote stereotyping? Or are phrases objectionable only when they attribute negative characteristics to the named group: Indian giver, French leave, Dutch uncle? Should writers avoid metaphors in which the adjective black is used to connote discredit (black sheep), illegality (black market), or exclusion (blackball, blacklist)?
She notes that “[p]roponents and opponents of these kinds of phrases are quick to marshal their arguments”, but she warns us that “perhaps it is better to err on the side of caution than to run roughshod over entire nationalities, cultures and social groups”. She aptly calls it “the power (or tyranny) of language”.
So should it come down to relying on a good copyeditor to properly captain the rough waters of inappropriate or insensitive language? Or should that be the prerogative of every conscientious person on the planet? We can’t change the history of language, so moving forward let’s at least make a conscious effort to address the practical ways we can use the power of language to reinforce equality rather than continue to highlight inequality.
The Canadian Style (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997)
The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 410-411