Gender Bias

Posted on

By Kelly Laycock

With recent events in the news, from the Dalhousie dentistry Facebook scandal to the charges laid against former CBC talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, the topic of gender equality (among other things!) has come to the forefront of our social consciousness. But it isn’t just in Canada; it is a concern on a global level. For those of you who haven’t seen this yet, take a look at Emma Watson speaking at the United Nations in 2014 about the importance of equality for women and a new global campaign called HeForShe. She addresses the misconceptions of the word feminism and expands on the need for male allies within the equality movement. We are all aware that inequality still exists (and not just between the sexes), and while progress has been made in some societies, equal rights is still a global issue that deserves discussion and solutions.

So what I’d like to discuss in this post is the role language plays in the debate and why it is so important to use unbiased language in our writing and speaking. I’m not talking excessive political correctness, where we find ourselves on pins and needles not to offend anyone, ever. What I’m talking about is making choices in our language that represent the reality we want to see. A society where our daughters and sons don’t feel the weight of being stereotyped into antiquated gender roles just because we didn’t take the time to reflect on the impact our choice of words and expressions has on our world view.

So what am I talking about? We don’t have to look very far to see the male dominance in English:

  • human being
  • mankind
  • man-made
  • manpower
  • manhandle
  • sportsmanlike
  • woman
  • Man, what a game!

These are all so ingrained, it may seem overly sensitive to mention them, but I was struck speechless when I found this generic use of the word man in Merriam-Websters Dictionary:

2b: the individual who can fulfill or who has been chosen to fulfill one’s requirements <she’s your man>.

Ouch! How far have we come, and we still use this kind of expression in everyday English? Were they trying to be gender neutral by using a feminine pronoun to show it is not specific to men?! That is perhaps even worse. But that’s nothing compared to some. Do these make you as uncomfortable as they make me?

  • Man up.
  • Be a man.
  • Are you man enough?
  • That’s a ballsy move.
  • Grow a pair.
  • You throw like a girl.
  • Don’t get your panties in a knot.

Have you noticed how most expressions of strength involve masculine stereotypes? Perhaps the negativity is more obvious in the contrasting feminine stereotypes of weakness and hysteria. If you are having a hard time understanding why someone might take issue with these expressions (but by now I hope you see my point!), let’s look a little closer at the theory behind unbiased language. When gender-specific terms like he, him and man are used to describe gender-neutral situations, women become invisible.

  • Man is a primate.
  • All men are created equal.

Clearly, women cannot be seen as equal when they aren’t seen at all. As the Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out in its article entitled “Feminist Philosophy of Language”:

…there is no doubt that a gender-neutral meaning is intended, but this meaning seems unavailable. As a result, the sentences seem ill-formed:

  1. Man has two sexes; some men are female.
  2. Man breastfeeds his young.
  3. Ask the candidate about his husband or wife.

Or how about terms that call attention to a woman’s presence in a position of authority?

  • doctor – lady doctor (apparently still common in the UK)
  • manager – manageress (again, common in other parts of the world)
  • actor  – actress (this one is so accepted, perhaps it doesn’t bother anyone, but I find it follows the theory that these gender-specific terms minimize the stature of women in these roles)

What’s wrong with replacing some of these terms with more inclusive language (as suggested by Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, page 411)?

  • chairman ⇒ chair or chairperson (although chairperson tends only to be used for women, continuing the gender bias through a different word), presiding officer, president
  • councilman ⇒ councillor, councilperson
  • fathers (figurative) ⇒ founders, pioneers, innovators, trailblazers
  • fireman ⇒ firefighter
  • housewife ⇒ homemaker, householder
  • mailman ⇒ mail carrier, postal worker
  • salesman ⇒ salesperson, customer service representative, sales clerk
  • workmanlike ⇒ skilled, expert

Or what about a few of the guidelines given in The Canadian Style. They suggest:

  1. Parallel treatment of names mentioned together:
    • Knight and J. Philips or Joyce Philips, the engineer, and Alan Knight, the journalist, not Alan Knight, the journalist, and Mrs. J. Philips
    • and Mrs. James and Irene Luciano or James and Irene Luciano not James Luciano and his lovely blond wife Irene
  2. Avoid personification:
    • The area was hit by Hurricane Flora. It wrought havoc not She wrought havoc.
  3. Do not feminize occupations or add gratuitous modifiers:
    • Executor not executrix
    • Doctor and nurse, not lady doctor and male nurse
  4. Avoid using generic man to refer to people in general
    • Average person not common man
    • Ordinary people not man in the street
    • Staff/operate/run a booth not man a booth
    • Humanity, people not mankind
    • Synthetic, manufactured not man-made
  5. Use woman not girls or ladies
    • The men and women of the Administrative Division not the men and girls of the Administrative Division
    • Seventy percent of the delegates were women not seventy percent of the delegates were ladies
  6. Do not suggest that men are the norm in certain situations and women in others:
    • Parent and child not mother and child
    • Professionals, their spouses and their children not professionals, their wives and their children
    • The average worker or wage-earner not the average working man

As a colleague of mine pointed out, when it comes to filling in job applications, women are often still viewed as a minority, despite us being one half the population of the world. They ask you to self-identify as a woman (the same question usually asks if you also want to identify as a visible minority, an Aboriginal person, or a disabled person). I have always found this rather insulting. They call this equal opportunity employment, but what it really points out is the stark reality that women are underemployed in general (not to mention underpaid!) and in order to be considered on an equal footing to men, we are asked to highlight our “weakness” through a government initiative. Way to fill those quotas, ladies.

(Another issue with gender bias inherent in the English language is the lack of a gender neutral pronoun. We’ve talked at length about pronouns in a previous post, so if you are interested in the he/she, s/he, they debate, please click the link.)

Copyeditors (and other professionals in the publishing industry) have long been aware of the use and abuse of biased language. And it’s not all gender related. Einsohn highlights some issues with other biased terminology (page 410):

Copyeditors almost never encounter overt ethnic or racial slurs in manuscripts, but some authors will use derivative terms that may strike some readers as insensitive. Controversies abound: Are colloquial verbs like gyp and welsh (or welch) offensive? Do expressions such as Dutch treat, French letter, and Siamese twins (scientists now use conjoined twins) promote stereotyping? Or are phrases objectionable only when they attribute negative characteristics to the named group: Indian giver, French leave, Dutch uncle? Should writers avoid metaphors in which the adjective black is used to connote discredit (black sheep), illegality (black market), or exclusion (blackball, blacklist)?

She notes that “[p]roponents and opponents of these kinds of phrases are quick to marshal their arguments”, but she warns us that “perhaps it is better to err on the side of caution than to run roughshod over entire nationalities, cultures and social groups”. She aptly calls it “the power (or tyranny) of language”.

So should it come down to relying on a good copyeditor to properly captain the rough waters of inappropriate or insensitive language? Or should that be the prerogative of every conscientious person on the planet? We can’t change the history of language, so moving forward let’s at least make a conscious effort to address the practical ways we can use the power of language to reinforce equality rather than continue to highlight inequality.



The Canadian Style (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997)

The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 410-411

Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy


3 thoughts on “Gender Bias

    Marilyn Elliott said:
    January 30, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    While all of these stereotypes in language are true, it is the gender-biased pay inequity and lack of attention to basic human rights in some society that must receive attention before we worry about what to call it


    Ken said:
    January 28, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Outstanding post editor! As parent to an 8-year old girl, I find these questions inescapable in everyday speech. To a child, every bug or rodent or random animal is automatically male, unless it is obviously female, which is rare. I have started using female pronouns, especially for ladybugs, but it requires a conscious effort. The male bias is overwhelming when you think about it. How do you say “What do you guys want on your pizza?” To a mixed or all-female group? “People” and “women” sound strange to me, too formal. “What do people want on their pizza?” It sounds like a political question. Both words – woman and people – are in play, but they have that political charge, like they are new concepts. “We the people” … “A woman has the right to choose.” I have been using “folks” a lot these days even though it sounds old-fashioned. What about “gals” for the all-female party? It seems to be the female equivalent of “guys” but derives from “girls” and is out of fashion, and considered offensive. “I’m going out with the guys” … “I’m going out with the … girls? ladies? – girls sounds best – like “out with the boys” – is this because “going out” with friends is a childish thing to do? As opposed to staying home and managing house, children, etc.? The poetic tang of “man” is even harder to overcome – “to go where no man has gone before” – later modified to “no one” – which is spectacularly wrong, as they met intelligent life everywhere they went. I also find myself calling my daughter “man” – as in “hey man, you want to play a game of chess?” – [side note: Chess is an interesting counter-example, where the Queen leads in battle and the King is to be protected – curious how that reversal came about] – I tell myself that anyone can be “man” in that expression, but it’s actually generalizing yet another male identifier. What’s the answer? There is no answer because the actual problem is not just in language. Changing language is glacial, except in periods of great social change, when common usage can shift quickly. But every little bit helps, folks.


      sroussellewis said:
      January 29, 2015 at 9:52 am

      Great comment Ken!
      The only problem I see with using “girls” or “boys” when talking to a group of your friends is that in my opinion it can sound as if you are infantilizing them. Maybe I’m going too far in this thinking and maybe there is no “correct” way to to address a mixed group, but I know I do not prefer to be called “girl” or even “ladies”. There is just something that irks me about the terms.

      Liked by 1 person

Tell us what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s