Gendered Language, Part II

by cacophonies

The recent post about gendered language and the common defaulting to male got on quite a tangent. I’d like to raise a few points to maybe clarify, or expand on, what I was saying.

My annoyance at being defaulted to male, like when a customer sends a letter to me, a female, addressed to “Sirs,” is based less on historical context or its relevance to current societal problems or legal issues, and more to do with what the words or phrases mean in modern society.

No, discontinuing the official use of gendered language is not stopping women from “facing legal penalty for being raped in misogynistic cultures,” but it is holding onto, and perpetuating, the idea that women are not equal to men. Whether the person who writes the letter or defaults to male pronouns in speech realizes it or not, or whether or not s/he is actively sexist.

I readily acknowledge the fact that meanings of words have changed with time, and the root of any one word may mean something completely different in a different time than its modified version does now. I agree that gendered language is slowly evolving and becoming more inclusive. I’m also not denying that, 50 years ago, when the same elderly person that called me a sir in their letter to me wrote their first letter to her bank, it was 100% expected that a man would receive that letter and handle the person’s problem. Maybe more women were accepting of that then, and they aren’t now. Times have changed, and I understand that.

My post was, ultimately, touching on a small annoyance that I, as a female, have to deal with in my professional life. Defaulting to male when addressing or describing people is now outdated and, because of the fact that women occupy nearly all positions in the corporate world, sexist, whether intended or not.

Gendered language does, however, grow into larger problems. The little boy who learns that it is expected to assume everyone is male when addressing an audience, a letter, or telling a story, will grow accustomed to the idea that he is the default, and therefore, the most important or most valuable. The little girl that learns the same thing will grow accustomed to believing that she is an afterthought, or not as important, and that she will always have to struggle to be recognized– more so than her male counterparts.

The subliminal messages (whether intended or not) that we get and process as a result of gendered language can, in fact, be problematic on a larger scale. Maybe, if the 20-year old college guy hadn’t been assuming that everyone defaults to male, therefore not realizing that he sees himself as more valuable than women, or sees women as a people who exist for him, he would have listened when the girl that went to the frat party he threw said no, because he would see her as a peer, someone who had the same ability to make decisions for herself as he had.

That’s a bit of an out-there example, but I think it fits. Acquaintance/date rape is a huge problem, and the victims are more often women than men, and gendered language that defaults to men is only aiding in the mindset that that’s expected, or acceptable behavior. Like it’s just another part of being a female that we have to live with, comparable to our periods.

That’s not how it actually is, and that’s not the idea that we should perpetuate with something so easily changed and modified as our language.

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19 responses to “Gendered Language, Part II

  1. You say that women occupy all these these positions, but in what numbers and percentage? Why should I bother to change my verbiage for a minority?

    • links in bold

      Why should you?

      Well, to start off, women actually aren’t the majority (in the US, at least).

      I don’t have a good way to answer your general question until you explain the reasons why you believe that women do not occupy that majority of upper-level corporate jobs, or furthermore, why you do not believe that we should acknowledge minorities, even if a majority in a general sense becomes a minority in a certain profession (or other area). Do you really think that we should only recognize one group of people, and does that mean that until a minority reaches majority status, they aren’t important and their experiences and perspectives aren’t worth considering?

    • …Also (to use the letter example), when considering who you’re probably addressing, do you really feel that it’s appropriate to address your letter to a series of people that share the same gender? Does that have anything to do with what your letter is about?

      I don’t have statistics about my workplace, but a quick glance around the floor I work on would show that more women work there than men, and people of color outnumber the white people employed there. Does that mean that we then change or letters to say, “Dear black woman,” since black women are the majority in my department? Or should we just find a new way to address the large number of people that could be coming across your letter as a general, all-encompassing way to address a group?

  2. There is a deeper issue here, though, which is that if women get a “Dear Sirs” letter, they are expected to just brush it off, but if men were to receive a “Dear Ma’ams” letter, they would be deeply offended.

    It really comes down to the fact that society trains men to view the ultimate insult being mistaken for female or feminine (think “pussy,” “faggot,” and “throw like a girl” as ways of men teasing each other).

    Married het women who keep their original surnames will often get mail (even from relatives or acquaintances) addressed to Mr. and Mrs. his-last-name, and then have to put up with it. Do you think the man would put up with getting mail to Mrs. and Mr. her-last-name?

    I view the “Dear Sirs…” as a symptom of a larger problem–men socialized to be offended when mistaken for female.

    • It really comes down to the fact that society trains men to view the ultimate insult being mistaken for female or feminine (think “pussy,” “faggot,” and “throw like a girl” as ways of men teasing each other).

      Exactly. That’s the main concern, and how it plays into later behaviors (or perpetuates current ones) and societal norms. It’s superficially annoying to me on an individual level, but if you look at it from the ant farm perspective, it’s very problematic on a much larger scale.

      Also, sorry that this comment took so long to approve. I forgot about the spam queue, and I don’t know how your comment made it in there.

      • Also, sorry that this comment took so long to approve. I forgot about the spam queue, and I don’t know how your comment made it in there.

        It’s random and tends to afflict the same commenter for a few days. Sometimes it grabs any comment they make with links. Sometimes it won’t let them post at all.

        Better that than the spam.

    • There is a deeper issue here, though, which is that if women get a “Dear Sirs” letter, they are expected to just brush it off, but if men were to receive a “Dear Ma’ams” letter, they would be deeply offended.

      As someone who has received a “Dear sister” letter, I was amused rather than offended.

      It really comes down to the fact that society trains men to view the ultimate insult being mistaken for female or feminine (think “pussy,” “faggot,” and “throw like a girl” as ways of men teasing each other).

      On the other hand, it’s an insult to call a woman “mannish”. I’ve never understood why its considered to be misogyny (as opposed to misandry) whichever way the dynamic operates.

    • I couldn’t empirically vouch for you assertion as regarding a “Dear Ma’ams” letter; I’ve never received one. I doubt I’d be offended though.

      If the sender was female though, I would assume she was a Feminist trying to be offensive though – unless I was in a female dominated workplace like cacophonies claims to be.

  3. Repeating what I said in the other thread, I don’t agree that “everyone defaults to male”. In this BBC News article entitled “Gaps in support for abuse victims“, “abuse victims” default to female. Male victims can go hang as far as the UK “Equality and Human Rights Commission” is concerned.

  4. I don’t believe that hat women occupy that majority of upper-level corporate jobs because that is what most of the labor figures, feminist-sourced or not – say. It’s an incontrovertible fact that men currently hold the majority of upper-level corporate jobs.

    Therefor, unless I know it’s a mixed audience or believe it is likely to be a mixed audience, I see no problem using “Sirs” or some similar greeting.

    It’s a greeting for the Gods’ sake; a bit of formula.

    • I don’t believe that hat women occupy that majority of upper-level corporate jobs because that is what most of the labor figures, feminist-sourced or not – say.

      I’m not asking what source you got your information from, but your thoughts or potential theories about why more women don’t occupy more powerful or hugh-level corporate jobs, and why there is such an imbalance.

      • I assume that question is open to all.

        Feminists generally attribute this to direct and indirect discrimination by the existing largely-male powers-that-be, and to cultural norms which operate to handicap women.

        I’ll stipulate to those to a degree, but I’ll also point out that there is some evidence that powerful women sometimes protect their status by discriminating against other women.

        Another factor is that women are generally less willing than men to devote themselves singlemindedly to their careers, at the expense of family and other considerations.

        • …there is some evidence that powerful women sometimes protect their status by discriminating against other women.

          Definitely. It’s hard to unlearn that behavior. I don’t think it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon; I’ve been able to unlearn it myself, after some hard work mentally.

          Another factor is that women are generally less willing than men to devote themselves singlemindedly to their careers, at the expense of family and other considerations.

          That may be true, but I still want to get to the root of why that is, before allowing that to be an acceptable or accurate answer.

      • OH! Sorry, I misunderstood the question.

        I believe that women do not statistically often occupy more powerful or high-level corporate jobs because they’re more often than not unwilling to do what is necessary to reach those positions.

        You have to be willing to give up almost everything else in your life in order to get those promotions. I know; I’ve done it and paid – and will continue to pay – the price for those choices. Women don’t seem to be willing to do that.

        Of course then we have to at least mention the underlying gender role assumptions that tacitly force men and women into their respective choices regarding family and work-life balance…

        • Of course then we have to at least mention the underlying gender role assumptions that tacitly force men and women into their respective choices regarding family and work-life balance…

          That’s mostly what I was getting at.

          I sure as hell don’t really care to do much more work than I already do now, the only exception being if I was working for myself and doing something that I really cared about, as opposed to a financial institution run by someone who, I’m sure, couldn’t care less about my actual happiness.

          I think that if we were able to strip ourselves of social constructs and start fresh, the number of men and women in higher-level positions would even out. Maybe not perfectly, maybe women would, in general, be less willing to give up more in order to secure a high-level career, but maybe not. In the meantime, the vast difference can feel offensive and worrisome, as though I’m just not invited to a special elite club, ya know? And not because of my abilities or strengths, but just because of my gender.

          It’s not that dramatic, especially considering my own smaller career goals, but overall, that kind of thing can add up to larger social issues.

          • If we set aside the underlying gender role assignments – Man as Bread Winner and Woman as Care Giver – I think you’re right; the disparity of genders in upper level jobs would largely even out. That’s bloody well unlikely to happen though.

            Though you’re “not invited” due to your abilities and/or strengths, or the lack of them. It is assumed, fairly rightly given those underlying gender role assignments and the fact that employers can’t legally asks questions to clarify the situation with a specific woman, that women would choose family over work. That’s considered a weakness in the business world.

            In point of fact, a man who chooses family over work gets treated far worse in the business world than a woman does. I’ve seen it and it wasn’t pretty.

            I guess what I’m saying is that you’re concerning yourself with a symptom instead of the “disease.”

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