Language is one of, and probably, the most important pillars of any culture. A fundamental pillar o our culture, and definitely the most consistent, is patriarchy - at least since the agrarian revolution, 12K years ago. This, hence, turns our language into one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced.
Needless to say, Gender discrimination is so deeply engraved on all cultural institutions, language included. Yet, linguistic objects have a singularity that turn them into a very particular and powerful resource used to propagate gender discrimination - They are not considered as wrong. Gender biased language is still perceived as neutral and as normative (see Hamilton, 1988; Ng, 2007; Stahlberg et al., 2007).
Since we perceive words as mere sounds we assume they don't inflict a damage by themselves. A speaker can discriminate without having an intention or even an awareness that this linguistic behaviour has discriminatory results. However, words aren't mere sounds, they actually shape the perception of how the world is, or should be, and this perception shapes our reality.
It might seem far-fetched to talk about languages as one. Languages of course aren't similar. They have different words, concepts and syntax. Accordingly, some languages actually are more gender biased than others. Yet, it is far from awkward to refer to all languages in one. No matter which culture we come from or the language we speak they wee all shaped by patriarchy shaped all cultures and thus, are all gender biased.
To better grasp how apparently neutral language objects discriminate, let's observe a linguistic mechanism that stuctures all languages - the default type.
The world has historically prescribed the male gender as default, a construct that is reinforced through language. All languages are structured by the unwritten, yet consensual norm according to which the 'standard' human being is male (Silveira, 1980). Seeing men as the human default structures human societies to follow a generic masculine framework
Language shapes thought, a grammatical habit of speech leads to a habit of mind. Hence, the "standard-male" mechanism propagates stereotypes and deepen the discrimination. The following real-life examples show how this bias appears.
Linguistic objects describing females are grammatically more complex than those referring to males. Language with grammatical gender (ex: French, German, Hebrew) often display longer suffix for women than men. A common usage is adding suffix to the corresponding masculine terms. Professor/Professoressa (teacher, Italian), arrivé/arrivée (arrived, French), katib/katibah (writer in Arab). This applied also to the "genderless" language like English, hero/heroine, actor/actress.
The female name is often derived from male name. This is created by adding the suffix as -E, -ie, -ine form, for example, Louise and Stephanie were respectively derived from male Louis and Stephen. Even the name 'female' is derived from male. On the contrary, male name based on the name of the female name is rare.
This mechanism of suffix is applied only to women. Hence, it reproduces the convention that the prototypical human is a male. When, for example, one uses the generic term to apply to people, it is assumed to be male unless otherwise indicated (Silveira, 1980). Establishing men as the default completely excludes women, even if one has no intention to. Men are established as the norm against which everything is judged, and women are treated as deviant from this norm.
Seeing men as the human default affect a wide range of behaviours and lead to subtle biases. By deriving female nouns from male nouns, language places the man at the center and suggests that the woman is his orbit. This embedded male bias in our psyche so deeply that even our collective identity is understood as masculine – we use ‘man’ to describe our species and ‘mankind’ as a way to unify us.
In many ways, language both reflects and creates the gender inequalities that exist in society.
Symmetries can be broken, in many situations reality actually forces it. A lipped coin would either be pill or ace. Place a pencil on its head, it would all somewhere. Yet, this broken symmetry, this actual state that represents the objects doesn't affects the coins hidden side, or the pencil's characteristics. This isn't the case with genders. Men isn't just a choice that we have to make to define humanity. regardless the coins final representation (ace-pli), regardless of the cubes sides orm (1-6) they are all considered to have the same essence. Apply this assymetey to your language and you break its structure. Our language doesn't doesn't consider female to differ from male by form only (genital organs), but by its essence.
Consider gender sexuality for example. Many languages lack of terms referring to one sex. Due to gender stereotypes that want women to be pure and family oriented, there is no male counterpart in current language use for terms such as virgin, working mother, or career women (cf. Maass & Arcuri, 1996).
Spinster, for instance, is an offensive term for “a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marriage,” but we don’t have a similar insult to describe an unmarried man. Unmarried men are called bachelors, a word that conjures images of hunky male celebrities and is often preceded by “most eligible.” Women who are perceived have sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis—have often been referred to as sluts, whores, and tramps. Yet there is no equally disparaging term for men.
So much of the language describing women is rooted in shaming their sexuality or reinforcing the idea that a woman’s value is determined relative to men. These asymmetries in words like mistress and housewife aren’t just descriptors: they are labels that reflect an undercurrent of sexism in society.
When both sexes are provided in a timely manner, the word order is always male preceding female, which cannot be inverted. It is not difficult to find out the principle of “male first female “ after careful observation of the nouns and pronouns in English. As people often say, the husband and wife, king and queen, men and women, he and she, Adam and Eve, brother and sister and so on. It is rare to invert those words order. This is only one part of the problem. If these words are linked with those phrases such as good and bad, rich and poor, day and night, life and death, it is not just a simple problem of before and after. It embedded the men's superiority and the describes women as an inferior and less favourable state. It justifies thus discrimination against women. order
The examples above are only few examples. Language discrimination is deeply engraved on all language objects.
Language imposes speakers to focus on particular concepts that are grammaticized within its structure, resulting in language-bound representations. These are not mere grammatical differences but rather a mechanism through which language shapes thought, where a grammatical habit of speech leads to a habit of mind. This applies to any domain gender is only one of them.
Empiric studies show that Making distinctions between objects (e.g., different colors, genders, and time orderings), vehicle the presumption that these categories actually exist in the world and are relevant (Boroditsky 2001; Boroditsky et al. 2003; Boroditsky and Gaby 2010; Danziger and Ward 2010; Fuhrman et al. 2011; Hunt and Agnoli 1991). 2 In one experiment in 2007, Russians could identify different shades of blue more quickly than English speakers because they have two words for the colour blue, unlike one in English.blue
Accordingly, a gender biased language makes us believe that that women are inferior to men. That they worth and merit less and than men. The default masculine legitimates very powerful discriminations:
As people we have a preference for the current state of affairs. The current baseline is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss.
The bias intersects with other non-rational cognitive processes such as loss aversion, endowment effect and is supported by vast amount of experimental findings. The later show that people tend to stick to their default settings, even if it acts against their moral, financial interests.
We are all effected by this. It is enough to note how rarely we redefine the settings of our computers or mobile phones and how little we do to protect our personal data.
The default choice is also supported by the social effect. People are more likely to choose what they observe other choosing. People are also more likely to treat choices that require less justification as defaults. The default option for parole hearings, for example, is to deny prisoners parole.
Even if it dissevers them, the majority of women and men maintain the default masculine simply because it exists. When people are considered as deviance they develop a feeling of being different from the typical member of their social group. They also feel less social belonging and identification with their social environment. Those who feel part of the group find it easier to pave their way.
This standard male manipulates our perception and propagates discrimination - as showed by Simone De Beauvoir man is regarded as "both the positive and the neutral, foreshadowing the notion that the typical contrast between opposites… is not symmetric." Rather, the contrast between oppositions is often asymmetric meaning "the positive, or unmarked, term can be neutralized in meaning to denote the scale as a whole rather than just the positive end; but the negative, or marked, term can denote just the negative end. All members of a category do not have equal status in the mind of the human perceiver; some members are instead perceived as more equal–or more prototypical–than other members… and the female is taken to be a variation of that prototype, a less representative example of the human species". When he masculine form is also the neutral one, words like virgin, slut, housewife as become objective images of reality.
It also provides an unfair advantage in social game - Females and Males are fictive construction of the mind. They don't have a fundamental particularity. Accordingly, not all men abuse and not all women are pure. As creatures they both fight for power and dominance. Doing so some humans would curve the rules of moral and use any mean to reach the goal. In this given situation, the male has an unfair advantage on a given woman, or a group of. For example, a male competing with a woman for a leadership post can take advantage of the incongruent view that women who display assertiveness may be perceived as competent, but unpleasant. Fortunately, this isn't always like this. But more often than not this is still the case even when people are aware of a potential bias.
Imagine a joke starting with the formula: "An Englishman, a Germanman and a Frenchman...".
We’d anticipate a punchline relating to the characters’ sex as well as their national origins. Otherwise, why deviate from the usual all-male line-up of ethnic stereotypes?
To keep the joke ‘clean’, you have to avoid distracting people with unexpected background details, like a female placed without comment in the slot for a generic category-member. But the result is that women are either linguistic objects (ex: cartoons, jokes) which aren’t directly about women, or else they only appear in very stereotypical roles where their presence is in line with our expectations.
Empiric studies clearly show that this perception invades our reality. To name just few:
Professional - Children choice at schools is influenced by the way they are perceived by the system. Boys are still considered to be more talented than girls are in math, whereas girls are more talented than boys in language domains . As children grow older and have more experiences in which stereotypes are discussed or endorsed by others, these stereotypes may become a more salient source informing children’s own attitudes. 5
Images of scientists are persistently masculine, and notions of scientific excellence affects the evaluation and selection of women in science.i) ii) Mothers are viewed as less competent than women who are not mothers, which isn't the case for fathers.
Even if women overcame these obstacles, it effects their career. Despite high levels of achievement, women can suffer from an "imposter syndrome". Lacking confidence in their intellectual accomplishments and ability, and a sense of belonging.
Both women and men are significantly more likely to vote to hire a man applicant versus a woman applicant with the same academic record. Data from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics shows that men associate professors are 2.5 times more likely than women associate professors to be promoted to full professors.
Health - abuse neglect and death - Stereotypes about gender affect how doctors treat illnesses and approach their patients. For example, a 2018 study found that doctors often view men with chronic pain as “brave” or “stoic,” but view women with chronic pain as “emotional” or “hysterical.” Thus, doctors were more likely to treat women’s pain as a product of a mental health condition, rather than a physical condition.
These attitudes increase the risk of patients dying. For example, the idea that heart attacks mainly occur in males — and a lack of awareness about how they affect females — contributes to the higher rates of females dying from heart attacks.
The above examples are far from being unique. It has been shown that this “linguistic normativity effect” (e.g., “ Compared to men, women are . . .,” or “Compared to fathers, mothers are . . .”) implicitly favours the first mentioned group, which becomes the norm against which the other is compared (Pratto et al., 2007).
When men are mentioned as the referent group of comparison in a typically male (leadership) context, status inequalities are perceived as more legitimate and the gender stereotypes of men as agentic and women as communal are more readily endorsed.link Specifically, (Bruckmüller et al. 2012).
The insidious consequence is that people perceive gender bias in language as normative and enact gender discrimination by simply following communication rules (Ng, 2007).
No problem can be solved if it isn't addressed. If we believe, at what we constantly declare, that women are equal, we need to address and to clean the linguistic objects that maintain the gender biased, propagate stereotypes and legitimate discrimination.
As long as this rule remains central to languages users of these languages will continue to classify the world on the premise that males are the standard, normal being and that those who are not male will be considered deviant. Speakers will continue to divide humanity into two unfairly biased parts. "By arranging the objects and events of the world according to these rules we set up the rationale, and the vindication, for male supremacy."
If we are committed to the gender equality, the language discrimination has to be addressed. If our language is systematically flawed and/or rests on an understructure of invalid rules then we are misled and deceived at a fundamental perceptual level. The rules by which we make meaning, ones intrinsically associated with language, had to be invented and defined (Dale Spender).
Change, for anyone, comes when we see how hard things are now and realise they won’t change on their own. We don't think of our task as crowbarring a change people don’t want; we try to look for ways to ignite their wish to feel better than this language currently allows.
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