Hello, my fellow readers! Today, I want to discuss gender inequality in our daily language. If you haven’t read my previous post on #MeToo movement, check that out.
Few days ago, I had an English class on language and gender. I was too excited for that class that I couldn’t sleep the night before. As an advocate for gender equality, I always had a sense of pride as a female, and didn’t let myself down just because of my gender. But guess what? My English class blew my mind off.
I was gender-biased; but I bet you are too. The everyday language is often gender-biased.
“He” and “she”
“Men” and “women”
“Male” and “female”
“Waiter” and “waitress”
“Actor” and “actress”
I can probably list them FOREVER. But anyways, do you see how we add “s” to “he” to form “she”? And add “wo” to “men” to form “women? And add “fe” to “male” to form “female”?
You get my point. This is gender-biased language.
The addition of prefix or suffix to the generic terms (words that refer to an inclusive group) indicates that a word refers to female, while a generic term is used to refer to males. To be more technical, we call them “unmarked” and “marked” terms. The generic term would be the unmarked term, and the addition of suffix or prefix would be the marked term.
- Generic term
- Male term
- Female term
But doing so makes it seem like the males are the “standard” since we use the generic term to indicate males, while we don’t for females. The usage of unmarked and marked terms portrays the asymmetry between men and women, which exudes a power of male dominance over women. Thus, the unbalanced power that marked and unmarked terms provides portrays that the gender inequality is even embedded in pronouns that we use every single day.
Interestingly, English is not the only language with gender-biased terms. For instance, in Chinese, “他” refers to “he”, “她“ refers to “she”, and “他们” refers to “they”. (My Mandarin teacher will be so proud of me using Mandarin outside of her class!) As you can see, “him” and “they” use a same character, while “she” uses a different character, portraying the asymmetrical stance of male and female in the Chinese society. The fact that most languages have gender asymmetry reflects the ingrained gender inequality in our current system of languages.
Here’s some more: English honorifics portray the gender-biased language. For example, “Mr.” is used to address men, and it is an abbreviation for “master”. But doesn’t “master” sound authoritative and powerful? Usually, people address someone as a master if he is the head of an organization. So calling a man “Mr. X”, immediately lowers their own status, but shows high regards to that man, whether the he is poor, rich, well-educated, or powerless. Thus, the fact that all men are addressed as “Mr.” clearly shows the high stance that men have in society. Don’t you agree?
On the other hand, women are classified into “Miss”, “Ms.”, and “Mrs.”, which all derive from “mistress”. “Miss” and “Mrs.” reveal the women’s marital status, while “Ms.” reveals the women’s political status. While men only have one honorific, women have two honorifics that indicates their marital status, whether the women belong to any man, under his name. Women’s association with marriage devalues women by classifying them as properties of men. Therefore, the honorifics diminish the value of women, while it augments the value of male, which leads to gender inequality.
So why is it important to realize that our language is gender-biased?
Before we answer this question, let’s try to answer these questions first.
Why do women and men have a pay gap?
Why do women get more verbally harassed than men?
Why are there more statesmen than stateswomen?
Yes, there could be multiple factors that caused our society to be gender-biased and led to these social problems. However, I believe that language is one of the major factors that led to the social problems listed above. According to a psychology professor at Rhode Island School of Design, decades of research have shown that how we speak influences the way we think. Since we use gender-biased language, we also think in a gender-biased way. Our subconscious gender bias that comes from the language have brought many problems that involve gender inequality.
Personally, I have experienced subconscious gender-bias. In Economics class, we peer-reviewed each other’s work. When I received my comment, I was baffled by what my classmate referred me as: “he”. My classmate decided to use “he” to address an anonymous person. Why couldn’t my classmate use neutral pronoun such as person and he or she? How did my classmate come up with a conclusion that the person he/she was grading is a boy?
But I’m certain that my classmate did not intentionally refer me as “he”, but his unintentional usage of non-neutral pronoun proves how people are unconscious of their usage of gender-biased terms. In other words, we all are gender-biased without knowing that we actually are. Gender inequality is prevalent in our society; yet it is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that we don’t even recognize it.
Going back to the question of the importance of the awareness of gender-bias in our language, we need to identify the source of the problem. Being aware of the causation of gender inequality allows our society to know where to begin, and how to tackle the problem of gender inequality and other social problems derive from gender inequality.
Language is a way to communicate and reflects our thoughts and beliefs.If we gradually transform our language with gender-neutral words, wouldn’t the gender inequality alleviate as well as the problems that arise from gender inequality?