Sunday, May 12, 2019

Going against the grain and linguistic sexism

Words reflect and create expectations beyond their immediate meaning. In the case of certain professions, they bring into mind a picture of a man or woman often based on historical patterns. This prejudice requires the minority gender to define itself against the established term.

One way is to add the gender definer to the profession.  In reality, there are many male nurses, male prostitutes and male secretaries. They are obliged to add the descriptive word to provide an accurate image of themselves.  Otherwise, without a picture, the reader would assume a woman. Likewise, the terms driver, pilot and judge have their feminine version, i.e. woman driver, female pilot and, in French, Madame le juge. Despite the number of women in these professions, the image remains male.

In some cases, languages change the term to break the stereotype. Policemen and police women are collectively referred to as law enforcement officers, a completely gender-neutral term. Firewomen are included in the term firefighters. All meetings have a chairperson to reflect the number of women in management.  Finally, to deal with a very complicated situation, the terms father and mother in school registration forms are slowly being replaced by Parent 1 and Parent 2 to allow for single sex couples with children.

Some languages, especially Arabic and Hebrew, cannot always gracefully solve the issue. At the elementary school level in Israel, the fast majority of the teachers, 95 per cent, are female. Yet, if there is one male teacher at a staff meeting, should they be addressed as morot, the feminine plural form, or morim, the masculine plural form? The rules of grammar suggest the latter while common sense would imply the former.  The only elegant but wordy solution is to say morim and morot, yes with the masculine form first as placing the feminine form first sounds a little odd in Hebrew.

So, those pioneers that desire to break the gender barriers to certain profession not only have to cope with prejudice and lack of confidence but also with linguistic stigmas.  They must verbally define themselves in opposition to societal expectation.

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