Opinion: Language Perpetuates Implicit Sexism

Style guides to the English language denote using the word "actor" for men and "actress" for women. These distinctions are so long-held and common in society that we tend to note notice the implicit sexism they weave into the English language (Photo Illustration by Jordan Revenaugh).

In 2014, Always launched the “Like a Girl” campaign, targeted to help women and girls take back the phrase “like a girl,” often used to insinuate weakness, and turn it into something new, something strong.

It’s seven years later, and in my mind, the campaign was successful. It completed the duty it set out to do, which was to allow women and girls to take a phrase that was once demeaning and demoralizing and turn it into something positive. The explicit sexism of “like a girl” and phrases like it obviously called for change and called for us, as a society, to cease use of phrases that further perpetuate sexism and the stigmatization of women outright.

Even though this campaign and others like it were a step in the right direction toward eliminating sexist language, sexism remains ingrained into our everyday language.

The phrase that really spurred on this train of thought for me personally was “son of a bitch.” 

Dictionaries often define the phrase as “a general term of abuse for a man.” Though the origin is disputed, the term was potentially first coined by William Shakespeare in 1605 and is still an integral part of everyday language in America.

However, delving into the etymology of the phrase reveals that, for as often as it is used as an insult toward men, it’s actually an insult toward the mother of the man at whom the insult is being directed. Even when we attempt to direct insults at men in society, the blame ends up falling back on women due to the language we use, thereby perpetuating sexism in an implicit way.

Maybe that example is more obvious, but gendered language certainly doesn’t stop at the phrases that are more outwardly and overtly sexist.

Phrases that we tend to use as praise when something is done right, including wingman, right-hand man and poster boy, are all oriented toward men. Meanwhile, the phrases that we use to express dissatisfaction at one’s behavior, like prima donna, Debby Downer and Negative Nancy, are all directed toward women. This disconnect potentially creates an implicit instinct to attribute more positivity toward men and more negativity toward women since we do so subconsciously in our everyday language.

In 2017, psychologists Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini made a claim that the English language, specifically, reproduces sexist ideas held in society on the grounds of not only word choices and phrases, like “son of a bitch,” but also through basic grammatical structure.

The researchers argued that language perpetrates existing gender stereotypes on the grounds that masculine nouns and pronouns are often the root word of all feminine nouns and pronouns, but they are also more commonly used and more archetypal in everyday language.

It might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but human brains are hardwired to use as many heuristics and schemas as possible to take shortcuts in our thought processes. From a neurobiological standpoint, more thinking requires more energy, which requires more glucose. And we are creatures who are built to conserve as much energy as possible.

In the world of business, we create mental pictures, stereotypes, for who fits the image of a certain job. We picture construction workers as strong men who wear overalls and a hard hat. We picture entrepreneurs as businessmen who wear navy suits and always have a fresh haircut. We picture the president of the United States, 45 times out of 46, as a white man.

The pattern here is that all of our go-to mental representations tend to be men.

Our stereotypes of success and business are heavily male-centeric because of the way that our language normalizes the term “businessman” and makes “businesswoman” a less common and almost obsolete phrase. When women disappear from society’s mental representations of holding a certain position, they become less likely of actually holding that position because they’re not who the employer envisions when looking for candidates for a specific job. 

With regard to grammatical structure, Menegatti and Rubini explained that sexism is tied to the way in which expressions referring to women tend to be more grammatically complex than those referring to men. And, as stated previously, when it comes down to a neurobiological aspect, we’re just trying to conserve energy. We’re more likely to use a more grammatically simple phrase over a more grammatically complex one. Since grammatically simple phrases and words are more commonly attributed to men, we thus subconsciously instigate a scenario where our point of reference is always men.

In that sense, something as simple as the changing word from “waiter” to “waitress,” or “host” to “hostess” does more to perpetuate than one might initially think. 

The argument of how language perpetuates sexism goes farther than use of the phrase “Like a Girl.” Sexism is ingrained in our everyday language down to the very root of our grammatical structure, thus creating a systemic issue.

As the people who use the language that propels sexism, we also have the power to change it. All we have to do is try, and try like a girl.

About Jordan Revenaugh 80 Articles
Jordan Revenaugh is a senior from Rochester, Michigan. An aspiring journalist and author, she is a double major in psychology and English with a creative writing concentration. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of the Pleiad, Jordan runs cross country and track, is a part of Delta Gamma and InterVarsity, and is a dedicated avocado enthusiast.

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