Why English is weaponised against women
Just consider some of the everyday words used to describe males and females. When you look at these, a clear picture emerges. There are no negative connotations or alternative meanings of the word “king” but the word “queen” is a very different matter.
What about the word “dog” and the female form, “bitch”? The noun for a female canine is also an insulting term for a woman. The word for a male canine has not evolved into an insulting term for a man but rather one for a woman!
Of course, English is also loaded with nouns, often job descriptions, which reference only men. The use of terms such as chairman, postman, workman and many more is increasingly frowned upon.
But in some cases, it has proved hard to settle on gender-neutral alternatives, such is the inherent bias of the language.
How often have you seen articles featuring comments such as this one?
“The eminent professor attended the function with his tall, elegant and rather beautiful wife.”
These days, it would be far more acceptable to say:
“The eminent professor attended the function with his wife, a highly regarded local physician.”
The move to using gender-neutral language is especially challenging for the older generations. When you have always spoken and written in a certain way, changing your approach is almost like learning a foreign language.
Most people of a certain age would not think twice about describing the person who delivers their mail as the postman. It wouldn’t cross their minds that this word perpetuates gender bias. But it does.
An often-repeated English riddle perfectly sums up gender bias:
“A father and son were in a car accident and the father was killed. The ambulance brought the son to the hospital. He needed immediate surgery. In the operating room, a doctor came in and looked at the little boy and explained that they couldn’t operate because the boy was their son. How is that possible?”
There was a time when this riddle confused many people. These days most of us would immediately recognise that the hospital doctor must have been the child’s mother. The conundrum illustrates that even when the term for a professional person is gender-neutral, that person would have been presumed to be a man.
It’s easy to see that were the term for a doctor masculine in nature, it could only serve to perpetuate gender bias.
Rapid but necessary change
All languages change over time. Usually those changes are organic. They just happen but gradually. Gender bias is a different story.
The way we all use the English language is being transformed quickly and deliberately.
Things that have been said and written for generations are no longer acceptable. It has become increasingly apparent that gender equality cannot be achieved unless we can first evolve gender-neutral language.
Language really does inform and entrench our attitudes.