Gender Equity in Language


Editor, Meghan Laakso, explains the importance of gender equality through language.

In this time of human development, many would think the fight for gender equity would be done and over with. It is the 21st Century and yet when it comes to rights and equality, women are millennium behind in development. Since the beginning of time, women have been burdened by a glass ceiling of gender roles and expectations such as housekeeping, child bearing, and keeping the husband happy. Over time, this ceiling has inched up with minuscule bursts of progress. In the early 1900s, women fought to enter the workforce and gain suffrage, as well as obtain control of their own bodies. Activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger strained to achieve these rights. Today, the fight is still on; women deserve the same rights and opportunities men have in modern society.

The language used on a quotidian basis is what continues to establish and evolve the stereotypical gender roles that have always oppressed women. This language does not only affect women- it’s impact on men is just as immense and crucial. Understanding and practicing gender equity in language is vital to the development of society. If respect is shown through words, then it will be shown through actions and those actions will speak louder than any words ever have. If the genders can learn to respect one another and use kind, benign language, then conflict between the sexes will diminish and equality will replace disdain.

Women deserve the same rights and opportunities men have in modern society.”

— Meghan Laakso

From a young age, boys are encouraged and raised on language that degrades women. “Only girls cry” and “You run like a girl” are two ubiquitous phrases that suggest being a woman in something undesirable. These sayings intimate that women are weak and sensitive; all of the things men are not. The feminine hygiene brand, Always, produced a commercial asking various adults to ‘run like a girl.’ Instantly the adults actions became those of stereotypical women: concerned about their hair and nails, legs flailing, hands swiping at the air. They were given other actions: ‘fight like a girl’ and ‘throw like a girl.’ Their behavior stayed consistent. Always then asked young girls to ‘run like a girl’. The girls immediately began pumping their arms, running quickly in place, trying their hardest. When did doing something like a girl become an insult? These ‘like a girl’ phrases infiltrate the minds of girls at an early age and break their confidence, telling them that they are not good enough and that they are subordinate to men.

This language has a significant impact on men as well as women. This teaches men that women cannot do what men can. This teaches men to believe women are weak and fragile. This teaches men to disrespect women. However, it also teaches men to ignore their own feelings. In 2014, Emma Watson made a speech at the United Nations Headquarters in New York promoting her HeForShe campaign. In her speech, Watson remarks that she has “seen men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help fear it would make them seem less ‘macho’.”  Watson also believes that when men are free from the imprisoning gender stereotypes, “things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t be compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.”

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t be compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.”

— Emma Watson

Another problem with the modern language of society is it’s quality of blatant ‘maleness.’ This language promotes a male norm that is successful in making women feel invisible and worthless. This insensitivity has become so practiced in daily speech that it has been acknowledged as an acceptable way to speak. According to Stanford’s Feminist Philosophy of Language, there are more words for men that contain positive implications. The words for women automatically have negative connotations. Additionally, majority of the words meant for women have become pejoratively sexualized. Stanford uses an example of the word professional. “He’s a professional” and “She’s a professional” should have the same meaning but for the latter, it is alluded that the women in question is a prostitute.

Many feminists believe that the sexualization of words for women is a crucial element, if not the root, of inequalities between men and women. The article, “Achieving Equity Through Gender-Neutral Language”, states that the elimination of gratuitous physical descriptions is a major step in cutting off the sexualization of women. The article also suggests to refer to women by name, same as it is for men. By doing so, the body becomes insignificant and the woman becomes an equal.

Unfortunately, equality is not the case just yet. To achieve this, many things need to fall into place. First, males need to stop addressing women with slang. Words like ‘slut’, ‘whore’, ‘ho’, ‘bitch’, and many more are shaming to the body and personality. These pejoratives break a woman’s confidence down to nothing. Second, males need to stop using these slang terms for women when jokingly addressing a male friend.  A male telling another male friend to ‘stop acting like a bitch’ is doing the same thing as the  ‘like a girl’ phrases. Again, terms for women are being thrown around as insults- as if the worst thing to be in the world is just that: a woman.

With all of the language setbacks to gender equity, there are small improvements that are encouraging the fight to continue. The building popularity of gender-neutral language is going hand in hand with the progress of gender equity. Instead of saying policeman, the proper term would be police officer. This way no gender is being singled out and the immediate assumption of the police officer being a man is now questioned because there are other genders to consider.

The building popularity of gender-neutral language is going hand in hand with the progress of gender equity. ”

— Meghan Laakso

The adoption of gender equity in language is vital to the coexistence of the sexes. By developing a respect for one another and de-sexualizing everyday language, it is highly possible that equality can be achieved in all aspects of society. By pushing away gender stereotypes and generalizations, the human behind the gender is revealed. All of this gives every individual the opportunity to live freely in his/her own body and world, without fear of oppression and harassment. All of this is the key to shattering the glass ceiling so that women can walk on par with men and open the door of equality without it being held open for them.