Pros avoid sexist language

yvonne brillWithin Western culture, there are few workplaces with ONLY men or ONLY women. In theory, our workplaces are gender neutral. Our language, however, sometimes perpetuates a world in which women are subservient to men. Sexist language is commonly characterized using six issues:

  1. pseudo-generic pronoun, he (e.g., When an employee asks for a raise, he should be brief.)
  2. pseudo-generic noun, man (e.g., mankind, chairman, businessman, etc.)
  3. titles, labels, and names (e.g., stewardess, actress, Miss, Lady Vols, etc.)
  4. order of mention (e.g., he or she, husband and wife, etc.)
  5. male-to-female ratio (i.e., proportion of male and female words)
  6. gender sterotypes (e.g., All girls cry at chick flicks, but men never cry.)

Within any document, the first three issues have to do with style, in particular, word choice. The fourth issue deals with both style and organization of content. And the last two issues deal with content. (I borrowed the examples above from my friend and colleague, Nicole Amare, who published a study of sexist language in online grammar guides in Research in the Teaching of English in 2007.)

To promote equality, the National Council of Teachers of English published guidelines on gender-neutral language.  But there ‘s actually a long history of efforts to use gender-neutral English. In Gender-Neutral isn’t New, Gabe Doyle, writes

You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind.”

Two of his examples are from the 18th century!

While all of the issues above create sexist language, I suspect the sixth, gender stereotyping, is the most hurtful. To deal with this issue in science writing, Christie Aschwanden, a columnist for the Washington Post, proposed a Finkbeiner Test for stories about women in science (parallel to the Bechdel test created to measure gender bias in film). Aschwanden and Ann Finkbeiner are science writers, and Finkbeiner wrote in What I’m Not Going to Do:

I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman . . . I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.

Here is the list of content that should be excluded in a story on a scientist (who happens to be a woman) to pass the Finkbeiner Test:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the “first woman to…”

Sadly, The New York Times flunked the Findbeiner Test a couple of weeks ago when they opened the obituary for rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, like so:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

There was so much furor, The Times edited the obituary. It now reads:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

Omitting her skill as a cook was a move in the right direction. But The Times still flunks the Finkbeiner Test by perpetuating a female stereotype for an astronomer who patented the propulsion system still in use to keep communication satellites in orbit. (See the links below for more of the story.)

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