Sexist Language: What is it?

By Peter Connor

Much more has been written about sexist language then this tip can possibly cover. The nitty-gritty is this: any use of language that confers a greater value or more significance on one gender devalues the opposite and is sexist. Here is a quick overview of the four main characteristics of sexist language.

Stereotyping

Women are often described in terms of their traditional stereotypical family roles, or by their physical characteristics—wife, mom, blonde, etc. The net effect promotes generalized and inconsequential attributes while diminishing and/or denigrating significant ones that are contextually more appropriate and relevant.

Just a housewife, for instance, demeans the role of household management which quite often includes such significant activities as bookkeeping, tax preparation, grocery stocking and meal preparation; gardening and lawn maintenance along with raising children and elder caretaking—all of which are paid professional occupations outside the home.  

Subordination

Women are often described in terms that linguistically subordinate their positions so as to make them appear dependent on, or less equal to, their male counterparts. For instance, when female or woman is used as an adjective modifying an occupational or professional title—female airline pilot, woman banker—it creates an impression of being out of place, of being idiosyncratic, not the norm and, though tolerable, somehow not equal.

Trivialization

Feminine suffixes decrease the value of occupational titles as well. The application of -ette, -ess, -ienne, and –trix confers an aura of superiority on actors over actresses, comedians over comediennes, an executor over an executrix. Linguistic flags such as these trivialize the commitment and contributions of women in occupations, professions and other activities primarily dominated by men. Other slights fall into this category as well, such as referring to the office staff as the office girls.

He, His, Him, AbraCaDabRa

POOF! Women disappear from the contextual landscape when masculine pronouns are used as a generic reference to both men and women. Plural pronouns—they, theirs, them—serve as useful substitutes on some occasions; on others, pronouns may be removed all together or used in parallel male/female tandem. The same goes with using man to make generic nouns, verbs, or adjectives: all mankind, manhandled, man-made. Generally speaking, other alternatives do exist: humanity, wrestled/jostled, handmade/handcrafted/synthetic, etc.