Sexist language: a definite no-no, or just bra-burning nonsense? By Liz Sandbach

It’s still a hot topic – the ‘hot potato’ of modern linguistics. Or more specifically, sociolinguistics. Sexist language, or ‘unnecessarily gendered language’, has been defined as ‘words, phrases and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between females and males or exclude, trivialise or diminish either gender’.

First, let’s look at a bit of linguistic history. The word ‘mann’ was originally gender-neutral, having more or less the same meaning as our modern-day ‘person’. It wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that the word ‘man’ started to refer specifically to a male. But the gender-neutral connotation hung about, and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that this started to decline. But we still see these gender-neutral origins living on in words such as ‘mankind’.

However, in the modern world, we need to ask ourselves whether it’s still acceptable to use words such as ‘mankind’ when no one could ever believe that ‘man’ now refers to anything other than a male. Today, no one understands ‘man’ as encompassing both sexes and few will be aware that it ever did. Let’s look at it this way: if someone used the word ‘womankind’, would you think they were referring to all of humanity? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d see that as referring only to the female species. And therein lies the inequity. Our language has changed – and hopefully too our outlook. So I would argue that ‘mankind’ now falls into the category, as described above, of sexist language.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The other big problem of course is gender stereotyping. It’s changing – slowly – but we still see ‘fireman’ rather than ‘firefighter’. ‘Policeman’ rather than ‘police officer’. ‘Chairman’ rather than ‘chairperson’, or simply ‘chair’. I would argue that society shapes language, and in turn language shapes society. Do we really want our daughters growing up subconsciously (and remember that the subconscious mind is far more powerful than the conscious mind) to think of firefighters as ‘firemen’ – a purely male job from which they are traditionally excluded?

I experienced such gender stereotyping when I worked in the nuclear industry – at that time a totally patriarchal sector. When editing its reports and its journal, engineers and scientists were invariably referred to as ‘he’. And even though I constantly edited it out, and regularly brought up the subject, the exclusively male authors never ‘got it’. And yet the industry wondered why it couldn’t attract more women – even appointing the one and only female engineer at the site to network and further the ‘women engineers’ cause, yet at the same time still persisting everywhere in sexist language!

Of course, regarding the use of ‘he’, when referring to someone who could be of either sex, brings its own problems in terms of avoidance tactics. It often means resorting to ‘they’ – when this is grammatically incorrect. But this is becoming acceptable and circumvents clumsiness, and more importantly, allows us to avoid sexist language.

In today’s increasingly liberal society, where binary concepts are beginning to be questioned and androgyny is on the rise (think ‘unisex’), where people are free to define themselves and their gender/sexuality in any way they wish, I’d argue that our language – which is ever changing and evolving – should ditch the siloed approach and keep pace with such inclusiveness. Just two magic letters will change ‘mankind’ to ‘humankind’ and the change will embrace us all. The use of ‘firefighter’ will no longer appear to exclude our daughters from that noble profession. And referring to engineers, scientists and doctors in a gender-neutral way will encourage more girls into those honourable professions too. And this applies, conversely, to nurses, secretaries, dental assistants, kindergarten teachers: we want these to be seen equally as part of the male domain. Occupational segregation, aided by gender-specific language, should be confined to the past.

So I would urge you to think twice before using ‘mankind’ and its ilk. Consider the famous Neil Armstrong quote (almost certainly scripted by NASA): ‘That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.’ It’s a product of its era – and granted does have a certain ring to it. ‘Humankind’ wouldn’t have worked. But the problem here lies in its totally patriarchal slant. Certainly some women (although pitifully few in relation to men back in 1969) worked on this mission – at NASA and beyond. And, as women generally in society – representing pretty much half of the world’s population – we would have liked that historic quote to have included us too.

So back to the ‘society shapes language and language shapes society’ argument. Surely we, as writers, must understand, more than anyone, the power of words. Semantics may contain the word ‘man’, but please let’s use gendered language judiciously and considerately.


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