Sexism in language & teh interwebs
I’ve been having a few discussions/arguments about sexism in language recently. It’s a tricky subject to discuss because it touches on a wide variety of issues such as the role of language in society, the evolution of language and the difference between what is generally acceptable compared to what should be acceptable.
A few things have prompted me to think about this. Recently I was using mybuilder.com to find a decorator. I shortlisted a few decorators and this is what I saw:
Whoa! Tradesman shortlisted? This tradesman has accepted? Hire this tradesman? Francesca is a tradesman?
Ok… could be that someone got careless with the copy in one place. Then I had a look at their homepage.
Whoa! “Find Tradesman” is a menu item. “Local builders & tradesmen” is in their main copy. There are about a dozen more “tradesmen” on that page.
I think it’d be hard for someone to argue that the language used there isn’t sexist. You could argue that the vast majority of people registered on that site are men, but that’s hardly the point.
Strangely, a few minutes later I saw a tweet on Twitter that I felt compelled to reply to:
— Sunil Jolly (@sunilj0lly) January 7, 2013
I’ve taken a screengrab of the offending bit of text below:
Ok, so now we’re possibly getting into what some people would consider a more subtle language discussion. Etch replied:
— Sunil Jolly (@sunilj0lly) January 7, 2013
There are several issues I have with that reply. Firstly, Etch are obviously very creative and capable people; that much is clear from their very impressive website. They’re taking the easy route out by saying that “craftspeople” doesn’t read as well as “craftsmen”.
Secondly, gender stereotyping would make most people think of a woman when talking about someone into “arts and crafts”. So why use “craftsman” instead of “craftswoman” in the first place? There’s a discussion which is too long for this post about a perception of “man crafts” being superior or more intellectually valid than “woman crafts”.
Thirdly (and I’m not sure if this was a deliberate wind-up or not) they bundled headfirst into the issue of calling grown women “girls”. There has been so much written on this issue over many decades. There appears to be some stigma with being called a woman. This Huffington Post article inadvertently seems to back this up by saying that unlike girls, women aren’t “fun, adventurous, exploratory [or] bold”. According to Wikipedia, a woman is “is usually reserved for an adult, with the term girl being the usual term for a female child or adolescent.”
We could be here all day on this subject, so let’s move on. I don’t think Etch have any bad intentions and Twitter’s 140 characters limit doesn’t allow for complex discourse, so I replied with what I thought might illustrate my point in a humorous way. Either it didn’t work, they didn’t realise I was joking, they didn’t care or it was a combination of all three; because this was the next reply:
@etch great! In the interests of equality you’d need to change the male version to “handsome craftsmen” then. Looking forward to the updates
— Sunil Jolly (@sunilj0lly) January 8, 2013
I’m pretty sure they were taking the piss by putting “beautiful” before “craftswomen”. I certainly hope so!
How’s it going guys?
A while ago, we received an email thanking “the guys at Specialmoves” for some work we did. I immediately found this odd because one of the developers was female. Most other people however didn’t find this odd.
If you Google a definition for “guys” you’ll quickly find a dictionary that defines it as “a group of people of either sex”. (It’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary it seems. It appears to be US slang).
The rules of this definition appear to be:
- One man = “a guy”
- Two men = “some guys”
- Two men and one woman = “some guys”
- One woman = not “a guy”
- Two women = not “some guys”
- Two women and one man = “some guys”
- One billion women and one man = “some guys”
You could argue that “it’s just the way it is” or “that’s how language” works. But language changes and evolves. If we lived by unchaging dictionary definitions we’d be using a whole load language that would be unacceptable in modern society.
The argument against the use of guys to describe women can be explained well by looking at European Romance languages.
The noblest must prevail
I’m no French expert, but here’s a quick French lesson.
- Les hommes sont beaux = “men are beautiful”
- Les femmes sont belles = “women are beautiful”
- Les hommes et les femmes sont beaux = “men and women are beautiful”
You’ll notice that when the group is mixed, the male version of beautiful is used. It appears that this hasn’t always been the case and the historical reason for this comes from a time when men and women were far from equal. According to Cafe Babel:
In 1676, Dominique Bouhours, a French Jesuit priest and scribe, came up with an almost revolutionary formula: ‘the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine’ His justification was that when both genders meet, the noblest must prevail.
French and German groups have been fighting back against this by protesting and by removing a distinction between “madame” and “mademoiselle” from official government forms.
It seems to me the argument for “guys” is no different. A comparison with racial discrimination is another way to analyse the issue. I found this discussion online that eloquently explains this:
Why is “you guys” not considered a gender specific term? Is it because men are not considered gendered, like white people do not consider themselves a race or European-Americans ethnic? I say yes because the controlling majority view/way of life (male, white, Western) is seen as “normal”; and everyone else (female, black, Eastern) is expected to adopt the male, white, Western way of talking, dressing, writing, conducting war, etc.
There are bigger issues, does this really matter?
It might seem like nitpicking, but language is essential to society. You can’t tackle the bigger issues without firstly addressing the smaller ones.
Gendered words and phrases like “you guys” may seem small compared to issues like violence against women, but changing our language is an easy way to begin overcoming gender inequality.
In any case, how hard is it really to use gender neutral terms in everyday language? It’s not really asking for much.
Let’s take it back to teh interwebs
Bitch Magazine go into detail about the use of “guy” and how “One Seemingly Benign Phrase Makes a Man Out of All of Us“. There was a comment on the article which I found summed up my view on the word perfectly.
I”m a Tech Support Guy from the mid-Atlantic states who currently lives in California and works in the computer industry. I found this article after a newly added female Tech Support Person playfully asserted that she didn’t need to respond to a certain request addressed to ‘you guys’ since it obviously wasn’t meant for her (it actually wasn’t meant for her, but I took her point).
The use of Guys in the tech support world is ubiquitous and insidious. I for one will make a conscientious effort to, from now on, say “the staff”, “my staff”, “tech support”, or anything else I can come up with.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to stop estimating in man hours.