We Speak Up: Firsthand Experiences of Gendered Language

This month we were very excited to publish Speaking Up by Allyson Jule – a book that looks at how language use and related ideas about gender play out in the home, workplace and online. In this post the MM team considers their own experiences with language and gender.

Elinor

One of the most frustrating thing about sexist language is that it is so ingrained in people’s everyday speech that they are often completely unaware of the significance and implications of the words they use. One word that particularly infuriates me is that of ‘manning’ a stand. As we attend conferences a lot and the majority of our staff is female I really take objection when people use the verb ‘to man.’ While many people wouldn’t necessarily be offended by it, I feel that it is very easy to use the word ‘staffing’ instead which removes the gender connotation completely.

Another issue that I often face is that of titles. Frequently, I am asked whether I’m ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ and when I reply ‘neither’ people are sometimes confused. I’m glad that the term ‘Ms’ exists in English so that I have an alternative to Miss and Mrs but I really don’t see why women should be forced to use a title to denote their marital status when men do not. As a married woman who hasn’t taken my husband’s name, neither Miss or Mrs is correct but I still find Ms is not an option that is always available or that everyone even understands. I would be happy if we did away with titles completely as in my mind it only confuses people and creates an impression of inequality between the sexes.

Tommi

The recent publication of Speaking Up has given me a few moments to pause and reflect on my own use of language in my professional life, and how this might be seen by other people. One of the habits that I have been trying to train myself out of for years has been referring to my female colleagues collectively as “the girls”….

The term arose years ago when we had a larger office, and the majority of the staff and directors were tending closer to retirement age. We had a new intake of younger staff members, who happened to be women. Often my mum, Marjukka Grover, then editorial director, would say something like “are the girls coming to lunch?”. The term stuck, and was a lighthearted way of referring to a group of colleagues and distinguishing the younger ones from the older ones.

Fast forward 15 years, and those “girls” are now Editorial Director, Head of Production and Head of Marketing themselves, and have been joined by another two extremely capable women. They all know very well that I have the utmost respect for them, and that without them this business would be in desperate trouble. I manage mostly to refer to them outside the office as “my colleagues”, but every now and again, usually when we are talking about something social rather than business related, I’ll call them “the girls” and I’ll kick myself for doing it. Will I ever be able to train myself completely out of this habit? I doubt it, although I am getting better, and since one of my colleagues recently commented that she really hates that term, I will try even harder in the future. If any of you catch me using the term, please feel free to challenge me!

Anna

At 20 weeks pregnant with my elder daughter, I’d just found out at a scan that everything was ok with the baby, and that she was a girl. I decided to buy some baby clothes to mark the occasion, and so I took myself to Mothercare to buy some vests and sleepsuits. It was like stepping into another world – the baby clothes were rigidly divided by gender, pink for girls and blue for boys (my mum bought a set of blue sleepsuits with penguins on them for my daughter to the absolute horror of the shop assistant, who kept trying to tell her she was making a mistake). The ‘boy’ clothes encouraged boys to do things – drive tractors, fly planes, run fast – or be the boss. The ‘girl’ clothes encouraged baby girls to aspire to be princesses or defined them in relation to other people or how they looked: there were racks and racks of ‘Daddy’s Little Cutie’ vests, or ‘I’m so Pretty’ tops. Having lived up to that point in a feminist bubble, it was a rude awakening to discover that messages about gender equality are still something you have to work hard to instil in your children, in the face of prevailing culture.

My daughter is now nearly 7, and it’s clear that some of her contemporaries, brought up on these messages, have internalised and now believe them. One of her friends was told recently by a classmate that she wasn’t a proper girl as she prefers shorts to summer dresses and enjoys sports. The gradual drip, drip of these judgements hurts both girls and boys, men and women, and it turns out that the stereotyping starts at birth, if not before.

Flo

In our office I’m usually the one who answers the phone when it rings and I’m happy to be gatekeeper if needs be. However, we’ve noticed that when answering a cold call, I am often assumed to be a receptionist (I was even referred to as “just the receptionist” by one cold caller), with no authority, knowledge of the business, or decision-making power. Not only is this very insulting to genuine receptionists (surely it’s a mistake to get off on the wrong foot with the person who has access to the entire company), but as we’ve noticed that when Tommi (or for that matter, a male intern) happens to be the one who answers the phone, he is never taken for a receptionist, it could be argued that it’s an assumption based on my voice being identifiable as a young woman’s. Where I would be fielding question after question about who is in charge of accounts or how do I know my boss isn’t interested (I can see him from my desk waving his arms ‘no’), callers generally seem to accept being dismissed in the first instance by a man.

For more information about Speaking Up please see our website

2 thoughts on “We Speak Up: Firsthand Experiences of Gendered Language

  1. Finland, in the early 1970s. I was the only female on a board of a fairly important institution. The first board meeting. The chair gave the floor to board members: “professor XX”, “doctor YY”, “professor WW”, etc. When it was my turn, he said: “Mrs Kangas”. I knew most of the other members. I started referring to them as “married XX”, “unmarried YY”, etc. Everybody looked surprised and confused. At some point, the chair carefully asked me why I used this unusual language. My reply was obviously that I was on the board in my professional capacity, not as my husband’s wife. – Everybody accepted this graciously, and after that they used my academic title. Several of them said later that it was an event that really opened their eyes…

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