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Uncovering Biases: Gender and the Spoken Word

Jassimmrat writes about casual sexism in everyday language

The English language is full of words like “mankind”, “man-made” and “chairman” that are used daily and casually dismiss the existence of other genders. Majority of the population has been conditioned from childhood to use such gender-driven terms in conversations without actually realizing that language can influence stereotype formation. An article by BBC reveals that the world has historically prescribed the male gender as default, a construct that is reinforced through language. In many ways, language both reflects and creates the gender inequalities that exist in society. How one speaks affects how one thinks and how one interprets the world around us, making this a significant issue. According to the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology in Germany, human consciousness emerges on the interface between three components of animal behavior: communication, play, and the use of tools. These three components interact on the basis of anticipatory behavioral control, which is common for all complex forms of animal life. The interaction between communication and play yields symbolic games, most importantly language. Taken together, this gives rise to a mechanism that allows a creature to play forward the corresponding behavioral options. 

However, as various enterprises attempt to make themselves gender inclusive communities, social organisations like UN women and AWID work to better the policies that the population follows, the world has now started to make a conscious effort to revisit unconscious gender biases in professional and casual atmospheres alike. What’s important is that every human being pays attention to their certain daily-base habits and primarily, brings change in themselves and informs those around them, in order for progression to cultivate. Let’s use names of professions, gender- neutrally. Let’s say “humanity” instead of “mankind”, “artificial” instead of “man-made” and “chairperson” instead of “chairman”. The use of the word “pilot” or “builder” should be enough while talking about someone’s profession.

For a long time, people have associated the female gender to show distinction in certain professions — “A female pilot”, “A female builder”. With time, these terms seem to have been accepted as normal despite the fact that they were meant to be gender-neutral, applicable for both males and females. However, by adding a differentiation between a ‘pilot’ and a ‘female pilot’, the profession has now been condemned masculine, directly adding prejudice to it as it shows bias- a preconceived habit that is not based on reason.

Furthermore, even while using gender-neutral terms like “boss” or “actor”, minds tend to refer to a male figure rather than a female. This has led to the idea of a “female boss” or an “actress”, assigning a gender to a genderless concept. In her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez writes that: “Seeing men as the human default is fundamental to the structure of human society.” Culture and language follow a generic masculine framework where, she explains, “male bias is so firmly embedded in our psyche that even genuinely gender-neutral words [like doctor or actor] are read as male”.

Over time, there also have emerged  many gendered phrases and quotes. For example, the phrase “Cricket is a gentleman’s game”. According to an article by The Times of India, although the first reference to cricket appeared in the 13th century, the game only gained popularity in the 17th century, when English aristocrats started playing it and as such it successfully upheld their lifestyle, unwritten codes, and general preserved air of superiority of this social hierarchy. These aristocrats were also called 'Gentlemen' and thus cricket earned its title as the game of these gentlemen. Nevertheless, this title carries prejudice with itself because it leaves out various other communities that play the sport, especially women. The seventeenth century was not an era of drastic changes in the status or conditions of women. Women were discouraged from directly expressing views counter to their husbands' or to broadly condemn established systems. However, as work is happening to reimagine defaults around gender and to build a more socially-conscious and inclusive culture, language also needs to be reckoned with. 

The concept of king-sized and queen-sized beds is a familiar one, right? However, has one ever stopped to reflect on the fact that the size of a king-sized bed is always bigger? Yes, historically, kings have always been more powerful and it only makes sense to use this as a marketing strategy. However, this term will be passed down through generations and every time someone will think about a king sized bed, they will think about the fact that it is bigger and better. This is where the need for recognition awakens. Such small things bring with them unconscious bias.  

It’s important that an end is now put to this association of gender with normal spoken language. Female alternatives for gender neutral words are unnecessary. Small steps like this will enable the gradual erosion of gender biases. 

Let’s finish the need of associating gender with spoken language. A change takes time and so it is imperative that everyone does their part, now.

Sources-

  1. "The Subtle Ways Language Shapes Us". Bbc.Com, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201006-are-some-languages-more-sexist-than-others. Accessed 8 Oct 2021.

  2. "Why Is Cricket Called A Gentleman’S Game? The Truth Unveiled! | Cricket Mastery". Cricket Mastery, 2021, https://cricketmastery.com/why-is-cricket-called-a-gentlemans-game/. Accessed 8 Oct 2021.

  3. "Why Is Cricket Called A ‘Gentleman’S Game’? - Times Of India". The Times Of India, 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/why-is-cricket-called-a-gentlemans-game/articleshow/8003522.cms. Accessed 8 Oct 2021.

  4. "Women In The 16Th, 17Th, And 18Th Centuries: Introduction | Encyclopedia.Com". Encyclopedia.Com, 2021, https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/women-16th-17th-and-18th-centuries-introduction. Accessed 8 Oct 2021.

  5. "25 Organizations Fighting For Gender Equality". Human Rights Careers, 2019, https://www.humanrightscareers.com/magazine/organizations-gender-equality/. Accessed 8 Oct 2021.

  6. Kotchoubey, Boris. "Human Consciousness: Where Is It From And What Is It For". Frontiers In Psychology, vol 9, 2018. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00567. Accessed 8 Oct 2021.

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