Gender-biased language

This morning, on Radio 4, Libby Purves was interviewing a travelling performer who is studying at Oxford University. She repeatedly referred to the woman as a ‘showman’ or one of the ‘showmen’.

Throughout history, people – men and women – have been referred to as ‘men’ or ‘man’. Using this gender-biased language affects our perception of women and men’s respective capabilities.

When we discuss man-made materials, we subconsciously log the fact that men must be designing and producing these materials – women play no part in this. And if they do, it is under men’s guidance. Similarly, talking of workmen, showmen, policemen, firemen again instills the idea that these professions are solely for men. There may, indeed, still be more men in those roles but women are increasingly joining the police force and getting trades – so it’s important that we remove the gender-bias and refer to them as ‘people’ – not ‘men’.

There are also trades that are assigned to women, like cleaning lady. This term suggests that this role is purely undertaken by women. Men, according to this commonly-used term, should feel as excluded from cleaning as women do from the police force.

Genders may be attached to professions that don’t require differentiation and it is only when a woman is doing this job that her gender is mentioned – such as woman writer. I read an interview with the author Michele Roberts a while back and when asked about her role as a woman writer, she told the interviewer that she likes to be referred to as a writer, not a woman writer – as men are not called male or men writers. Calling writers who are women ‘women/ female writers’ suggests that they are tagging along in a male profession.

So, rather than attaching gender, we should find entirely different phrases for people working in various professions – easy with the vast vocabulary available in the English language.

Some examples:

cleaning lady – cleaner
career woman – professional (or whatever her job is: manager, executive etc)
salesman – sales rep, sales clerk
workman – worker
policeman – police officer
binman – rubbish remover/ refuse worker
woman writer – writer/ author

It’s amazing how engrained into our language these gender-biased phrases have become. Once you start listening out for them, you realise that they pepper our everyday language, giving power to the patriarchy and working against gender-equality.

I pointed it out to Rich a while ago and now he always pauses before assigning a gender and then finds a gender-neutral alternative. We then pointed it out to his dad and it became a bit of a joke – the comical pause to correct yourself so that you don’t come out with something that is, really, sexist – but so many of us don’t even realise we’re doing it.

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