Could gendered language be responsible for excluding women from power?

By Matt Dallisson, 17/04/2019

Nevertheless, any discussion about the link between language and gender discrimination often results in predictable comments about the trivial nature of the issue. It is this attitude that contributes to perpetuating male power and authority at the expense of women.

Language defines women’s position as inferior in relation to men. Unlike some other languages, English is not a gendered language – but gender is still often arbitrarily used for some things. Cognitive research suggests that language and the way people use it has a profound influence on the way we see the world.

The way we communicate with others can be influenced by a number of things, including the relationship of the speakers, their age, social status and gender. If we view language as a form of social practice, then the way in which words – whether spoken or written – are received and interpreted by the listener reveal a great deal about how power relations are established and reinforced.

Even the allocation of names and titles can be seen as an act of power. A name or a label denotes a person’s social place and women are still often singled out by marital status, or “nubility titles” – Mrs or Miss – despite the fact that other options exist.

Although Ms, the preferred form of address for many women, is provided as a choice on a number of forms and drop-down menus, it is not used as a default. Another alternative, Mx, is gaining in popularity among transgender and non-binary communities and can be used by everyone as a way to go beyond gender labelling. An interviewee on a radio podcast explained:

Women are also more likely to be addressed by their first names than men, which is an indicator of perhaps unconscious, but no less patronising, gender politics. It could be argued that this might be a way of avoiding offence, for those who might not know the person’s marital status, but this just supports the point that men are not subject to the same categorisation.

For hundreds of years only women suffered discrimination on the grounds of their sex (as opposed to sexual orientation). This is emphasised in early feminist writing, such as that of Germaine Greer and Florynce Kennedy to illustrate this, and that it happens in situations that demand the sharing of power – when a more powerful group is asked to make concessions to a less powerful group, resistance is the likely outcome.

It is not easy to change culturally conditioned ways of behaving and thinking, but the continued perpetuation and reinforcement of cultural and social stereotypes through language cannot be dismissed as something trivial. The need for a conscious change or awareness of how words are used has become ever more urgent – for inclusivity in communication and to support gender equality.

This content was originally published here.