Unmasking bias: A call to arms against gendered and sexist language

Sexism comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s blatant. Sometimes it’s subtle. 

In fact, it can often be so subtle that we’re not even aware of it.

I believe the best example of this subtlety exists in our language: everyday words and phrases with sexist connotations that perpetuate harmful gender norms. 

So this International Women’s Day, I’m doing my part to help us all (however woke or well-meaning we may be) become more self-aware – and sensitive to the language we use.  

First things first: ‘Feminist’ is not a dirty word

The Macquarie Dictionary defines a feminist as “a person who supports the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.”

Kind of a no-brainer, right?

And I’ve good reason to believe that everyone I’m close to – in both my personal and professional life – is a feminist. So why are many men (and some women) so quick to reject the label… even when they genuinely believe in gender equality?

I suspect it stems from the dated stereotype that deems all feminists as strong, forceful, angry, man-hating women.  

But, dear reader, it’s 2022. And high time we left that toxic typecast behind.

Do you believe in equal rights and opportunities for men and women? 

If so, hello feminist 😉

Newsflash: Men are not made of steel 

Why do we want and expect all men to be strong, brave and powerful… all the damn time?

And why do we use certain words and phrases that reinforce this expectation – leaving no room for men to be vulnerable or emotional (like, say… I don’t know… a WOMAN)?

Words and phrases like:

  • Sissy: When directed at a man, this label implies that he is being too feminine which, in turn, implies that women are weak. 

  • Man up: This phrase once again singles out women as the weaker sex. And tells men they must always be tough to be accepted and respected.

  • Grow a pair: Apparently, a man’s strength and courage comes directly from his testicles. (A particularly ironic conclusion given that the slightest knock to this region causes him to double down in pain and squeak like a mouse.)

  • Pussy: A pussy is not just a disrespectful way to describe female genitals. It’s also used as a derogatory term for men who are considered scared or pathetic. (Once again, ironic given that many women push humans out of this body part.)

The (judgmental) adjectives reserved for women  

There are many describing words used solely for women.  And even though some of these are intended as compliments, they are still gendered – and therefore harmful. Words like:

  • Bubbly: A bubbly person is usually not just friendly but affectionate, adoring and inoffensive – the way women are prized to be. 

  • Ladylike: This word represents a list of expectations of how a woman should behave. But me? I say screw that shit. (Sorry, was that not ladylike?)

  • Tomboy: This term injects gender stereotypes in children by putting male and female characteristics in a box. Harmful on so many levels.  

But sadly, most female-gendered words are not intended as compliments. Take these examples:  

  • Bossy: When a man asserts himself, he’s a leader. But when a woman does the same, she risks being called bossy (which implies rudeness and immaturity). This naturally discourages girls and women from speaking up.

  • Ditzy: This word reinforces the stereotype that women are the less intelligent and less competent gender.

  • Feisty: Are you confident, vocal and committed to your goals? Apparently this means you’re feisty (if you’re a woman – or a cat – that is). But if you’re a man? You’re just determined.

  • Hysterical or emotional: These terms, especially in the workplace, make what could be a well-reasoned defence or assessment by a woman sound unhinged – and unworthy of being considered.

  • Drama queen: Society reserves this term for women (and gay men) who are supposedly attention-seeking, insecure or emotionally dysfunctional. Does this mean straight men never display these behaviours? 

Successful, working women are not a novelty 

Women today make up almost half the paid workforce in Australia (ABS, 2020). And guess what else? More than a third of all small businesses in Australia are headed by women.

So why do we still fall into the trap of adding qualifiers to indicate a person’s gender or working status? Take these common terms:

  • Career woman
  • Working mother
  • Girl boss
  • She-E-O
  • Mumpreneur

CEOs can be women. And nurses can be men.

I admit, I often slip up on this one myself. Because like it or not, none of us are immune to subconscious bias. 

But try, if you can, not to pair a person’s gender with their job title – like in these examples:

  • Male nurse/teacher
  • Female CEO/doctor/comedian/WHATEVER!

Let’s also replace gender-linked titles with neutral titles:

  • Firefighter instead of fireman
  • Police officer instead of policeman
  • Chairperson instead of Chairman
  • Mailperson instead of mailman
  • Homemaker instead of housewife
  • Batter instead of batsman

And many people don’t identify as either gender

Using gender-neutral terms, where possible, is also about ensuring non-binary people feel recognised and respected. 

Naturally, the best way to know how a non-binary person wants to be addressed is to ask them. But if that’s not possible, here are some safe, easy substitutes you can make when referring to them:

  • Sibling instead of sister/brother
  • Parent instead of mother/father
  • Spouse instead of husband/wife
  • Partner instead of girlfriend/boyfriend
  • Child instead of son/daughter
  • Friend instead of mate/dude/buddy  

Having multiple sexual partners is commendable. If you’re a man.

When a man has multiple sexual partners, society sees it as a marker of his power – with congratulatory words like:

  • Stud
  • Casanova
  • Ladies’ man

But when it’s a woman? We label her a:

  • Slut
  • Hoe/whore
  • Tart
  • Floozy

Yup. Nuff said. 

A final fun fact: Men are only 49% of the world population

It’s true. And although I’m not a numbers person (I’ll take Wordle over Sudoku any day), I’m pretty sure this means we have more women than men on our planet. 

With that in mind: 

  • Use humanity or the human race instead of man or mankind
  • Replace man-made with handmade

And please, please: don’t use he or him as a generic term for a hypothetical individual. Instead, rework your sentences in the plural. For example:

  • Don’t say: Each manager must follow his own rules.
  • Do say: Managers must follow their own rules.

I assure you, I’m well aware that sexist and gendered language is not the cause – but rather a product – of our stubbornly persistent patriarchy. And that for real progress to occur, so much more needs to change. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t all at least try to play some small role in bringing that change about. I’m no feminist heroine hero. Just a self-confessed word nerd trying to do her own teeny tiny part in creating a kinder, more respectful world. For all genders.