Language and Sexism

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In the most recent volume of the Columbia Journal of Gender & the Law, Pat K. Chew (Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh School) and Lauren K. Kelley-Chew (B.S. Candidate, Stanford University) have published their article, Subtly Sexist Language.   They make the case that “gender-neutral” language is sexist language.   Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Language can be a potent vehicle for subtle sexism. As lawyers, we understand the power of words. What we say and how we say it can   perpetuate gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men. In contrast, language also can be used as a constructive tool for reinforcing equality.

Sometimes, sexist language is blatant and universally shunned. Other times, it is more subtle and even socially acceptable. For instance, social science research has considered the use of male-gendered generics (the use of such words as he, man, chairman, or mankind to represent both women and men) rather than gender-neutral alternatives (such as she or he, human, chairperson, or humankind). As we will discuss, this research concludes that male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory, because their use is perceived as normative and therefore not unusual. In addition, those who use these words may not intend to cause harm. Complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction.

Sexism and sexist language get an unintentional boost from people who say,”Gee, I haven’t noticed it,”and thus conclude that using male-gendered generics must not be a problem. Of that small group of people who are aware that language has the potential to be sexist, it is an even smaller group that understands the scope of sexist language’s pervasiveness–from newspapers and textbooks, to classroom, boardroom, and courtroom presentations, to the inscriptions engraved on prized monuments, statues, and memorials.

Substantial interdisciplinary research and commentary have underscored the use of male-gendered pronouns and nouns as a form of subtle sexism in various settings. Yet, there is a surprising absence of discussion on the use and effect of these words among lawyers, law faculty, law students, and judges.   Given the declarations of law schools, law firms, and courts on their commitment to nonsexist and diverse environments, one might expect that legal professionals would no longer use male-gendered generics since alternative gender-neutral options are available. Given the persistent signs of gender discrimination and the lack of gender parity in the profession, one might question whether a causal relationship exists between sexist language used in the legal community and sexism more broadly in these settings.

Chew & Kelley-Chew, Subtly Sexist Language, 6 Colum. J. Gender & L. 643, 643-645 (2008) (citations omitted).

In my view, law schools and other institutions of higher education have a special responsibility to have gender-neutral policies, procedures and communications.    Unless our language is gender-neutral, our non-discrimination policies  are hollow.  

Thanks to reader C for the inspiration.

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Language and Sexism

  1. lakay says:

    I just wanted to comment that I was ‘dinged’ in my first year writing class for using “they and their” as gender neutral pronouns which I had learned early on in my Women’s Studies undergraduate program. For example, when you are referring to a “client” but not using their name or etc. saying something like, “When a client experiences an accident as though they were actually there, you can start examining a bystander’s case for intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The worst part was that it was so natural to me – it is completely gender neutral – and it doesn’t even call any attention to the gender which is irrelevant to the sentence. If you say he/she, it sticks out and people notice – as opposed to noticing what you are saying. But my writing teacher wasn’t having it. “The Legal Profession is conservative and changes slowly.” I didn’t change my language though, and the good news is, I wasn’t the only person in the class who had the same comments – and didn’t change either.