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April 3, 2008

Subtly sexist language: Words make a difference

Proper grammar be damned!

The use of the suffix -man, as in chairman and congressman, and masculine pronouns such as he and his to indicate people of both genders is sexist, whether or not they are grammatically correct.

That was the main thesis of Pitt law professor Pat K. Chew in summarizing her research on subtly sexist language, which was published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law (Vol. 16:3).

Chew’s recent presentation on the sexism of using male-gendered generics was part of the women’s studies lecture series.

“Social science research concludes that male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes,” Chew said. “However, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory because their use is perceived as normative. In addition, those who use these words may not intend to cause harm, and complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction.”

Chew’s study of subtly sexist language, particularly as it occurs in her field of law, originated in a complaint by her then-teenage daughter.

“My daughter Lauren came home from her all-girls high school one day and made the observation that her teachers and classmates and the school administrators, all of whom she respected, were using words like mankind, manpower, businessman, chairman and congressman,” Chew said. “She was troubled by this, first because women could be in all of those roles and, ironically, people at the school used them even when referring to a group of all young women, like the chairman of a committee. It struck her as odd that there was such a prevalent use of these words.”

The observation prompted Chew to make an evaluation about her own environment. “Similarly, I observed there seemed to be a lot of use of male-gendered words used generically,” she said. “I heard them from my law students, both men and women students, and occasionally at a faculty meeting.”

Following these observations, Chew and her daughter, Lauren K. Kelley-Chew, now a Stanford undergraduate who co-authored the journal article, embarked on a research project.

The two questions the pair focused on were:

• How prevalent is the use of these types of words? and

• Did these words cause any harm or raise any concerns?

“Rather than search the world, we were going to concentrate on something we felt we could measure with some accuracy and that would be the legal world, thanks to a comprehensive searchable database of legal documents called Westlaw,” Chew said.

Prior to undertaking the search the two reviewed the existing social science research on the subject. In a nutshell, researchers have found that male-gendered generics are exclusionary and harmful, she said.

“When someone uses male-gendered generics, they’re more likely to think of men and therefore they are excluding or certainly dismissing the importance of women,” Chew maintained. “So, for instance, to refer to a lawyer as he, or congressional representatives as congressmen, the imagery that produces is more much likely to be male imagery in those roles.”

Similarly, those who hear or read these male-gendered generics are more likely to have male imagery as well. “So in that sense once again we’re excluding women in the visualization we have,” she said.

Chew cited a few research studies that elaborated on subtle sexism.

“One study was where the researchers asked the study participants to describe the average person in an occupation,” she said. “When the title was male-gendered — for example, city councilman — they were more likely to describe a man. If the title was ‘a member of city council’ or ‘a city councilperson,’ in those cases they were less likely to describe men.”

Recent research in psycho-linguistics published by Lera Boroditsky studied the gendering of objects in certain languages and the way that affects descriptions. For example, in Spanish and German an object can have either a male or female gender.

“So she’d show study participants an object or a picture of an object,” Chew said. “For instance, the word ‘key’ in German is masculine, and the word in Spanish is feminine. German speakers were more likely to describe the key as ‘hard,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘jagged,’ ‘metal,’ ‘serrated’ and ‘useful.’ Spanish speakers were more likely to describe the key as ‘golden,’ ‘intricate,’ ‘little,’ ‘lovely,’ ‘shiny’ and ‘tiny.’”

In another example, participants were shown a picture of a bridge, which in German is feminine and in Spanish is masculine, Chew said.

“German speakers were more likely to describe the bridge as ‘beautiful,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘fragile,’ ‘peaceful,’ ‘pretty’ and ‘slender,’ while Spanish speakers were more likely to describe the same bridge as ‘big,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘long,’ ‘strong,’ ‘sturdy’ and ‘towering.’

“So Boroditsky observed that even the arbitrary designation of an object as feminine or masculine can affect how people can view the object and can trigger associations tied to stereotypical feminine or masculine characteristics,” Chew pointed out.

She cited another study done by psychologists Alan McConnell and Russell Fazio, who had participants read the same vignette about a business negotiation.

“The facts were all the same, but in one vignette the business executives were each called the chairman of the board, and in the other vignette, they were called chair of the board or chairperson of the board,” Chew said. “The researchers asked the participants to describe the executives, their negotiating style and their behavior.”

Where the word chairman was used, participants were more likely to describe the behavior as rational, assertive, independent, analytical and intelligent. But those who read the gender-neutral descriptive titles were more likely to describe the business executives as caring, warm, emotional, compassionate and cheerful, she said.

“The researchers concluded that people do connect the use of these words with images showing that we tend to adopt male imagery over more balanced imagery and, in part, we also tend to associate the characteristics,” Chew maintained.

Thus research on sexism shows that the use of these words, even used generically and despite the conscious intention of the users, tend to generate male imagery, she said. “This has prompted conclusions among some social scientists that these are really not male-gendered generics, these are really pseudo-generics, in other words they really are not words that can be properly labeled as capturing both men and women,” Chew said.

“Finally, some of the research that is emerging suggests that those who are more likely to use male-gendered generics are more likely to hold certain beliefs, such as, they are more likely to deny that there is discrimination against women; more likely to be antagonistic toward women who enter traditionally male-dominated fields and more resentful about so-called special favors for women, or policies that are designed to help women in education, for example,” she said.

“I don’t want to make too much of it, of the people who do this, because I’ve probably done it in the past myself without thinking about it. But what struck us are the consistent conclusions of these scientists that there are concerns raised by use of these words.”

With those studies as background, Chew and Kelley-Chew embarked on a small empirical study of the legal field.

They mined the Westlaw compilation database for uses on nine pairs of words, one a male-gendered generic and the other a gender-neutral alternative. The pairs of words they selected were: businessman/businessperson; chairman/chairperson; congressman/congressperson; mankind/humankind; fireman/firefighter; layman/layperson; spokesman/spokesperson; draftsman/drafter and reasonable man/reasonable person.

Their research analyzed all federal judicial opinions, all lawyers’ briefs and all law journal articles for prevalence and usage of these pairs of words. “These are not only examples of legal documents, these are documents where people have labored to think about the language and to capture their carefully considered thinking,” Chew pointed out.

“We studied the use of male-gender generics in 2004 and 2006, and then we also tracked uses of their gender-neutral alternatives and we did a ratio. We did a similar analysis from 1994 and 1996 to give some sense if there’s been a change over time,” she said. “What we found was a high prevalence of use and a high frequency of use of the male-gendered words over their gender-neutral counterparts.”

In the 2004 and 2006 data, for example, the use of chairman and congressman outweighed the use of chairperson and congressperson by at least a 9:1 ratio, meaning that the former words were used more than 90 percent of the time. (Chew noted that adding the term chairwoman to the mix changed the ratio only slightly to 87 percent and she did not include chair as a gender-neutral alternative, since chair could refer to the object rather than an individual.)

Male-gendered options were used on average of about 82 percent of the time for the businessman/businessperson pair, about 88 percent of the time for mankind/humankind, and about 60 percent of the time for the fireman/firefighter combo.

Layman was used 56 percent of the time, and spokesman 51 percent of the time over their respective gender-neutral alternatives.

Data for two of the pairs show that the neutral alternatives were favored; drafter was used about 93 percent of the time, and reasonable person was favored about 94 percent of the time, Chew said.

“It is ironic and unexpected that the use of most of these words in the legal community is so prevalent,” she said. “At the same time, the ongoing use of male-gendered words is not surprising given that subtle sexism may be both unintentional and normative. But because research on sexism shows that the use of these words, even used generically and despite the conscious intention of the users, tends to prompt male imagery, while some judges, lawyers and legal scholars may not intend to be sexist, they are being sexist.”

The data also show very little change in use of male-gendered generics in the last 10 years, Chew said. “The data do not support the significant improvement we might have expected given legal educators’ and the profession’s declaration of wanting and welcoming more women to the legal field in the past decade. In fact the data suggest a stagnation or plateauing of progression toward gender neutral language in the last decade, and even some hint of a regression among certain groups of words.”

The average decrease in the use of male-gendered word options in the word pairs over the decade was 4.7 percent. The use of spokesman decreased the most (11.8 percent); the use of mankind actually increased 2.3 percent. The more typical example was the 3.3 percent decrease in the use of congressman. Congressman was used 94.3 percent of the time in federal cases during the 1994-1996 timeframe, and 91 percent during the 2004-2006 timeframe, Chew said.

“We were kind of hoping for a different outcome, so this outcome was not very cheery news to us,” she said.

To effect change will require fighting a number of rationales for maintaining acceptance of male-gendered generics, Chew said. Those include that the use of male-gendered generics is traditional, historically authentic or consistent with the words’ origins; or that authoritative individuals such as teachers, bosses or parents use them.

Another set of reasons are based on the user’s particular beliefs or convictions, varying from the view that male-gendered generics are not sexist, or that sexism is acceptable, or that changing infringes on their freedom of speech or that sexist language and sexism in society are unrelated,” she said.

“Other claims include that gender-neutral language is clunky, overly formal or distracting provide a basis for perpetuating the linguistic status quo. Some people continue to use male-gendered words because they lack understanding about the effects of their use.”

Others think the issue is trivial, ridiculous, frivolous or radical.

Women in particular are in a bind when confronted with sexist language because of social pressures to conform or be polite, or due to a concern about retaliation from male colleagues, Chew added.

But there is hope.

Even the venerable Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” long considered a definitive text on proper use of standard English and a long-time advocate of male-gendered generics, in its 2005 edition cautioned against overuse of “an unintentional emphasis on the masculine,” and acknowledged that, currently, “many writers find the use of the generic ‘he’ or ‘his’ to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive.”

Chew said, “Our research indicates that a couple of gender-neutral word options — drafter and reasonable person — are now widely used in the legal community, superseding the use of the male-gendered generic,” Chew said. “We explored in the article why ‘reasonable person’ rather than ‘reasonable man’ would be an aberration from the pattern. To do that we looked for more data from earlier years.”

That data show that “reasonable man” was used 78 percent of the time in 1964 and 1966 federal cases. In subsequent decades there was a decline in its use, so that in 2004 and 2006 reasonable person was used 96 percent of the time in federal cases.

“The dominant use of reasonable person illustrates that the legal community can change, despite its reluctance to do so,” Chew said.

In tracing the legal history of the term’s use, she surmised that the shift over time toward reasonable person was due, at least in part, to a heightened awareness that the term reasonable man is sexist.

In a typical sexual harassment case, Chew pointed out, a female employee alleges that a male (often her supervisor) has harassed her on the basis of her sex and thus created a hostile environment. Key questions in these cases are whether the harassment was “because of sex,” “unwelcome” and “severe or pervasive.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, there was considerable debate in the legal community over whose perspective should be used to answer those questions, Chew said.

“Scholars argued that using a reasonable man standard rather than a reasonable woman standard in these cases was inappropriate given the purpose of laws that were meant to remove discriminatory barriers,” she said.

In 1991 the Ninth Circuit Court adopted a reasonable woman standard in cases where a woman was the alleged target, reasoning that a “sex-blind reasonable person standard tends to be male-biased and … ignores the experiences of women.”

Other courts did not follow that conclusion, however. “Most judges apparently moved toward a term that they believed addressed the implied sexist nature of the reasonable man standard by choosing a reasonable person standard,” Chew said.

“They presumably interpreted that standard as being inclusive of both reasonable women and reasonable men, and that such a standard was the appropriate one in a sexual harassment case regardless of the gender of the plaintiff.”

That conclusion offers at least two lessons, Chew maintained. “First, raising the legal community’s consciousness about other male-gendered words being sexist is essential for change.

“Second, it is important for prominent figures and institutions in the legal community to model and advocate the use of nonsexist language, as has been done in other professions.”

—Peter Hart

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