Sexist language and the discussion revolving around it has interested me for a number of years now; it is also closely related to my own research on 3rd person singular pronouns. However, after becoming aware of a wider spectrum of gender than ‘men and women’, I began reading read sexist language discussions from a more critical point of view. The question of what sexist language is changes when we abandon the idea of gender binarism.
I conducted a search on EBSCOhost for ‘sexist language’ in academic journals and went through the first 30 publications looking for definitions of ‘sexist language’(1). Some of the texts did not define sexist language. The following are some of the definitions I found:
“Sexist language includes words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between women and men or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either gender” (Parks & Roberton, 1998: 455). Parks and Roberton have also used this definition in their later studies (e.g. Parks & Roberton, 2005: 402). A similar definition is used by Douglas & Sutton (2014: 667): “Sexist language excludes, trivializes, or diminishes either gender”.
“Sexist language is an example of subtle sexism in that it consists of speech that reinforces and perpetuates gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men” (Swim, Mallett, & Stangor, 2004: 117).
“Linguistic sexism, by definition, refers to the use of language expressions in such a way that it constitutes an unbalanced portrayal of the sexes” (Lee, 2007: 285); later passages confirm that the author considers only females and males as “the sexes”.
Additionally, ‘gender-exclusive language’ (which may be viewed as a subcategory of sexist language) is often defined in similar terms, for example: “Linguistic bias is evident in everyday language when people use pronouns that refer to one gender only and neglect the other, even when talking about both women and men—this is called gender-exclusive language” (Stout & Dasgupta, 2011: 758).
There are plenty of similar definitions, where it is clear that the authors are working within a gender binary conceptual space; word choices such as either gender and women and men make this binary mindset clear. In fact, it is quite difficult to find a definition of sexist language that would not be restricted to men and women. Only one of the texts I reviewed on EBSCOhost included a discussion of language related transgender issues (2)(3) and used gender neutral terms when discussing sexist language: “Using sex-specific terms to refer to people in general or to a non-specific referent has long been criticised as a sexist practice” (Weatherall, 2015: 418).
Guidelines for avoiding sexist and gender-exclusive language often emphasize using gender neutral and/or gender-inclusive terms. Gender neutral terms such as chair or chairperson instead of chairman have come into everyday use; firefighter instead of fireman seems to have become the norm, at least in some text genres (e.g. Balhorn, 2009: 392). But also conjoined terms such as men and women and he or she are often called gender-inclusive (e.g. Rubin, Greene, & Schneider, 1994: 107-108; Stout & Dasgupta, 2011: 757), and sometimes even gender neutral. For example, Earp (2012: 10-15) seems to be using gender neutral and gender-inclusive as synonyms, at least when talking about the he or she construction, but there is, of course, a difference between something being gender neutral and gender-inclusive; the former ought not depict gender at all, whereas the latter may be gendered as long as it is inclusive.
Taking into account a wider spectrum of gender than ‘men and women’, what have been called gender-inclusive terms so far (e.g. he or she, men and women), actually often enough fail to be truly inclusive when they are used to refer to people in general. The issue is the same as with masculine generics; an individual who does not identify as a man or a woman is likely to have the same problem including themselves in a phrase like men and women as a woman might have when she needs to include herself in man.
I suggest we broaden the definition of sexist language to encompass a wider spectrum of gender. A re-formulation might read as follows: “using expressions that exclude, trivialize or diminish a group of people based on gender”. And when it comes to sexist language avoidance tactics, the best method might be to use genuinely gender neutral terms when talking about people in general. People and singular they go a long way.
(1) 5 publications in the top 30 results were dismissed because they were not written in English. They were compensated for by extending the search to top 35 results. Additionally, 2 older texts were not available, and 3 were not relevant to the search.
(2) I am using ’transgender’ here as an umbrella term to refer to all individuals who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth and/or do not identity as female or male.
(3) Two other texts mentioned transgender issues very briefly, but the authors focused mainly on the female-male spectrum (Flanigan, 2013; Slovenko, 2007).
Balhorn, M. (2009). The Epicene Pronoun in Contemporary Newspaper Prose. American Speech, 84(4), 391-413.
Douglas, K., & Sutton, R. (2014). “A Giant Leap for Mankind” But What About Women? The Role of System-Justifying Ideologies in Predicting Attitudes Toward Sexist Language. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(6), 667-680. doi:10.1177/0261927x14538638
Earp, B. (2012). The Extinction of Masculine Generics. Journal for Communication & Culture, 2(1), 4-19.
Flanigan, J. (2013). The Use and Evolution of Gender Neutral Language in an Intentional Community. Women & Language, 36(1), 27-41.
Lee, J. (2007). Acceptability of Sexist Language among Young People in Hong Kong. Sex Roles, 56(5-6), 285-295. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9170-4
Parks, J., & Roberton, M. A. (1998). Contemporary Arguments Against Nonsexist Language: Blaubergs (1980) Revisited. Sex Roles, 39(5), 445-461.
Parks, J., & Roberton, M. A. (2005). Explaining Age and Gender Effects on Attitudes toward Sexist Language. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 24(4), 401-411. doi:10.1177/0261927X05281427
Rubin, D., Greene, K., & Schneider, D. (1994). Adopting Gender-Inclusive Language Reforms: Diachronic and Synchronic Variation. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 13(2), 91-114.
Slovenko, R. (2007). Nonsexist language--empowering women, dethroning men. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 35(1), 77-104.
Stout, J., & Dasgupta, N. (2011). When He Doesn’t Mean You: Gender-Exclusive Language as Ostracism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 757-769. doi:10.1177/0146167211406434
Swim, J., Mallett, R., & Stangor, C. (2004). Understanding Subtle Sexism: Detection and Use of Sexist Language. Sex Roles, 51(3/4), 117-128.
Weatherall, A. (2015). Sexism in Language and Talk-in-Interaction. Journal of Language & Social Psychology, 34(4), 410-426. doi:10.1177/0261927X1
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