Gender, Politics and Language

Last month we celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the first women in the UK getting the vote. This was obviously a momentous occasion after years of campaigning, but it wasn’t equality – under those conditions I still wouldn’t have the vote whereas I’ve had the privilege of voting 8 times in 6 years. (I think despite voting that frequently it’s still a privilege and not a burden!) Anyway, all this has made me reflect on gender equality and whether we’ve achieved it yet (spoiler alert – the answer is no). However, being a linguist, I’m also fascinated in were our language intersects with gender and whether our language is barrier or promotes equality. This is only becoming more pressing as more and more people identify as neither male or female. It also raises the question of whether our language reflects our thinking or whether our thinking is shaped by the words we use. Below, I’ve tried to categorise my thoughts in to some sort of logical order by splitting them into the following questions: whether gendered language still influences society today; whether there are tangible harms to male-biased language; what the possible solutions are.

1.      Does gendered language still influence society? Is it still a thing?

Sadly, it does still exist and still is a thing. Gendered language has probably been here since the dawn of time but 1827 was the first time ‘he’ appeared in UK legislation with the intention that ‘he’ would refer to all peoples of all genders. From here, the masculine form automatically became the norm and things rapidly went downhill in terms of equality. It led to the masculine form being viewed as normal and the feminine form being seen as a derivative and therefore less important. This is highlighted by the fact that the male form of a word is unmarked and the automatic form, implying that women and other genders are subspecies and denying them the language to tell their stories. Obviously, we’ve started to move away from this as generally ‘he’ is not seen as referring to any gender anymore and we try to use nouns to refer to both genders, for example, police officer instead of police man or woman. Language plays a key role in our decision-making processes, assessments and behaviours, as well as having the ability to shape our cognitive thinking. Therefore, when Trump dismisses his “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments as “locker room banter” and trivialises is sexist language, he not only diminishes the discriminated groups feelings but often makes them feel invisible, removes their voice and takes away their ability to explain their narrative. This makes the #metoo and #timesup campaigns particularly interesting as the language surrounding them is focused on reclaiming the narrative and speaking up, suggesting that previously their voices were lost or silenced. So, does gendered language still exist and influence our society? Yes. But why does it matter?

2.      Are there harms to male-biased language?

Maybe male-biased language is simply the by-product of archaic thinking which has no bearing on society today? Maybe not.

In the legal world, it has been found that writing legislation in gender-neutral language actually produces clearer and less ambiguous legislation which actually benefits both genders. Furthermore, a 1992 study by Hamilton, Hunter and Sharon found that if the pronoun ‘he’ is used in a text describing self-defence, the jury are far more likely to find the female defendant of being guilty of murder rather than acting in self-defence. This shows that gendered language can have real impacts on individual’s lives, and in this case, prison sentences.

Politically, when an existing political candidate uses derogatory or sexist language, it leads to less women standing for political office in the future as they feel isolated and unqualified to enter the political arena. If this is true of a candidate, I suspect it could be amplified when the candidate wins the highest office in the land. Therefore, the ripples of one candidate can continue long after them and not only effect female political involvement, but legitimise more fringe and extremist views, moving further away from civility in politics. This style of language, and indeed, the various allegations of inappropriate sexual advances, only perpetuate the view that Westminster is an old boys’ club, reinforcing existing power inequalities.

Finally, the unmarkedness of masculine words and the resulting invisibility can alienate women from more high-powered positions as if the pronoun ‘he’ is used to refer to positions like professors, judges and doctors, women struggle to visualise themselves in these roles. This is further highlighted by Bem and Bem’s study which showed only 5% of women applied for traditionally masculine jobs when male-biased language is used. This reinforces the glass ceiling for women and this is not only a negative thing for women, but society as a whole as No Ceilings report that when the gender gap closes, it increases the country’s GDP by 12%. So, evidently gender biased language not only negatively effects women and those who don’t identify as male or female, but holds back all of society, and prevents it from flourishing. So how do we combat it?

3.      Possible solutions...

One possible solution is to follow Sweden’s example and introduce a gender-neutral pronoun. Sweden introduced hen which is designed to be used when the gender of the speaker is unknown, irrelevant, or the speaker doesn’t identify as male or female. However, the use of hen isn’t mandatory and it’s currently too early to tell whether the introduction of a gender-neutral has been successful and reduced discrimination. For gender-neutral pronouns to be a success there must be strong public engagement and backing, which currently doesn’t seem to be the case. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether a new pronoun would actually solve all the problems surrounding gendered language. For example, the issue with Trump’s language isn’t the pronoun he uses, but his derogatory and sexist language.

Ultimately, the question comes down to the age-old debate in linguistics as to whether language shapes thought or vice versa. Personally, if there’s any chance language can be used to promote gender equality, I will use it accordingly. In terms of work, this means translating ambiguous pronouns as ‘they’ whenever possible and ensuring that my language doesn’t unintentionally reinforce gender stereotypes. Yes, we’ve come a long way since the first women got the vote but we’ve still got further to go and so does our language.

If you want any references of studies or research read which contributed to this then just shout - I have a very extensive list

P.S. shout out to anyone who thinks writing a dissertation isn't useful - getting to put mine into action!