Male-oriented language: the people vs. mankind

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

These are probably some of the most famous words in history. They, along with job titles like policeman, or pronouns like he/him, are also a clear-cut example of gendered language. Specifically, male-oriented language. These terms, and terms like them, are baked into our everyday language, visibly and sometimes insidiously shaping the world around us. It’s easy for some to defend them, buying into the notion that though they happen to be male-centric they are still inclusive of all peoples, and their gendered nature is just a coincidence, a random outcome of linguistic evolution.

However, if we’re being critical thinkers, and we should always try to be, it is apparent that a societal vocabulary built around male-centric terminology is probably the product of a male-centric culture. And further, that such language has the effect of perpetuating and solidifying this culture. Many studies have shown that gender-biased language like this causes people to think of man as the default, synonymous with person or human, and marginalizes women, intersex, trans and non-binary people, positioning them as an aberration, as the ‘other.’

The effects of this are wide-ranging. In one study, it was found that when a job was described using a masculine term, men were seen as better suited for the job, but when it was described using a neutral term, men and women were seen as equally suited. In languages with gendered nouns and articles trans and non-binary people have spoken about the difficulties brought on by the absence of gender-neutral terms to describe themselves and their identities. Generally, the world over, countries with grammatically gendered languages score worse on the Global Gender Gap Index, and higher rates of male-generic language used correlate with overrepresentation of men in media, politics, and the workplace. This shows the two-way street that language and culture can be. A sexist society can make their language sexist, and sexist language can have a similar effect on a society.

We can also look beyond just the linguistic examples. The idea of ‘male-as norm’ perpetuated by this type of language can be extremely dangerous when it comes to designing and understanding the world around us. A male-size must fit all approach has serious consequences. For one, men and women experience different symptoms at the onset of a heart attack, women having a wider range of possible symptoms. However, in medical schools and general practice only the male symptoms were historically taught and acknowledged (this is something that is only changing in very recent times) leading to fatal dismissals and misdiagnoses of heart attacks suffered by women. Writers like Sinead Gleeson, Caroline Criado-Perez and Gabrielle Jackson were part of a media push in 2019 to get industry leaders to improve their practices regarding gender and safety testing. These writers highlighted that safety features in cars, defensive equipment, and biological studies, all used male-proportioned models and male tissue in their tests. This bias leads to seatbelts, airbags, stab-proof vests, medicines, etc. that are less effective, or in some cases outright dangerous, for women.

Male-oriented language, and the idea of male-as-norm, at the head of society, also plays a role in bigotry and violence against women and marginalized groups. The idea of men as the inherent centre and leaders of society categorises everyone outside of cismen as inferior. Like most myths of inferiority, it justifies itself by negative stereotyping (I could include a list of negative female stereotypes as an example, but sadly we all know them, and regurgitating them would be unproductive) and demonisation, such as recent high-profile smear campaigns against trans people in the British media. Establishing supremacy by way of marginalization and demonisation has obvious and widespread violent ends. Once again, the statistics regarding femicide, domestic violence, murders of trans people, sexual violence committed by men, are clear-cut and well-known enough to not need repeating.

A lot of what we write and think about at Easier Said is concerned with the beauty and positive power of language. And language is powerful, whatever way it is communicated. But it is not always necessarily positive. It is a powerful tool for shaping minds and establishing ideas, getting people to take for granted, or justify, aspects of society that are negative, violent, and highly oppressive. So as best as you can, read, research, and listen, try to recognise and diagnose the ways in which your language, and the language of those around you, could be harmful. It is a small act for an individual, but a powerful one collectively, to try and remove discriminatory and othering language from our day-to-day speech. Our activism should not end there, of course, but it might be a place for many of us to start.

Text: Jamie Stedmond

We write about how humans fail and succeed at communication.