Subtly sexist language.

Author:Chew, Pat K.

"Why do I use 'chairman' instead of 'chairperson'? I hadn't really thought about it. Does it matter?"

--General Counsel of a major U.S. corporation (1)

"Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home ... the neighborhood ... the school or college ... the factory, farm, or office. Such are the places where every woman, man, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

--Eleanor Roosevelt (2)

Language can be a potent vehicle for subtle sexism. (3) As lawyers, we understand the power of words. What we say and how we say it can perpetuate gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men. In contrast, language also can be used as a constructive tool for reinforcing equality.

Sometimes, sexist language is blatant and universally shunned. Other times, it is more subtle and even socially acceptable. For instance, social science research has considered the use of male-gendered generics (the use of such words as he, man, chairman, or mankind to represent both women and men) rather than gender-neutral alternatives (such as she or he, human, chairperson, or humankind). As we will discuss, this research concludes that male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory, because their use is perceived as normative and therefore not unusual. In addition, those who use these words may not intend to cause harm. Complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction. (4)

Sexism and sexist language get an unintentional boost from people who say, "Gee, I haven't noticed it," and thus conclude that using male-gendered generics must not be a problem. Of that small group of people who are aware that language has the potential to be sexist, it is an even smaller group that understands the scope of sexist language's pervasiveness--from newspapers and textbooks, to classroom, boardroom, and courtroom presentations, to the inscriptions engraved on prized monuments, statues, and memorials.

Substantial interdisciplinary research and commentary have underscored the use of male-gendered pronouns and nouns as a form of subtle sexism in various settings. (5) Yet, there is a surprising absence of discussion on the use and effect of these words among lawyers, law faculty, law students, and judges. (6) Given the declarations of law schools, law firms, and courts on their commitment to nonsexist and diverse environments, one might expect that legal professionals would no longer use male-gendered generics since alternative gender-neutral options are available. Given the persistent signs of gender discrimination and the lack of gender parity in the profession, (7) one might question whether a causal relationship exists between sexist language used in the legal community and sexism more broadly in these settings.

We noticed, however, that some law teachers, students, and professionals continue to use male-gendered generics in their conversations, both inside and outside the classroom, and in their writings. This observation prompted us to research the subject more thoroughly to see if our impression of the ongoing use of these words in the legal community was accurate. If so, what are the implications of this conduct given the social science research on the effects of sexist language?

Drawing from interdisciplinary research, we synthesized the research on subtly sexist language and, particularly, the use of male-gendered generics. We discovered a consensus among social science researchers that male-gendered generics are examples of subtle sexism. (8) Based on our original empirical analysis, we also studied the use of male-gendered words by judges in their judicial opinions, lawyers in their legal briefs, and faculty and other authors in law review articles. We found in our analysis of these varied documents that we as a legal community continue to use male-gendered words, (9) seemingly oblivious to the sexist message we are sending and the harm we are inflicting in our schools and workplaces. Finally, we consider some possible reasons for the legal community's resistance to change and propose some initial steps to decrease further the subtly sexist use of male-gendered generics.


    While our tendency is to take language literally and not to look for meaning beyond the apparent message, cultural and psycholinguists propose that language conveys much more than the literal message. (10) Benjamin Lee Whorf is often credited with the original hypothesis that language is related to perception, analysis, and conduct. He proposed that the words one uses and hears shape how one "understands reality and behaves with respect to it." (11) This Whorfian hypothesis of "linguistic relativity" has been explored and debated since its introduction in the 1950s. (12) One contemporary interpretation is that "linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought. That is, it appears that what we normally call 'thinking' is in fact a complex set of collaborations between linguistic and nonlinguistic representations and processes." (13)

    Considerable contemporary research, for example, has considered how our use of particular ostensibly-innocuous language can shape the way we think about gender and can have sexist effects. Words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between women and men, or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either gender, for instance, have been shown to be problematic. (14) Studies indicate that (1) the use of male-gendered words when referring to both men and women (male-gendered generics), (2) hierarchic and separatist terms (such as man and wife), and (3) terms that influence women's self-esteem or identity (such as using girl to refer to a woman) are all examples of sexist language. (15) Consistent with the Whorfian hypothesis, social scientists have carefully and specifically considered how the use of male-gendered generics shapes our perceptions and is linked to gender-related attitudes. (16)

    1. Male-gendered Words as Pseudo-generics

      A common explanation for using male-gendered generics, such as his, he, and words with the suffix--man, is that the words are intended to and understood to be inclusive of both men and women; that is, they are not intentionally sexist or exclusionary. (17) A classic defense was given by William Strunk and E.B. White in an early edition of their widely used and admired book, The Elements of Style: "The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances.... It has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect." (18)

      While Strunk and White were generally correct about the convenience and historical origins of he as a generic for individuals of both genders, they were mistaken about the lack of gender association and its impact. (19) Many social scientists have concluded that when we read, hear, or use male-gendered generics, we are much more likely to think of "maleness." (20) These researchers found in a variety of settings that, in comparison to the use of more gender-inclusive terms such as he or she or humankind, the use of male-gendered words triggers in both the communicator and the audience a male image. (21) Thus, using male-gendered generics excludes or at least diminishes the prominence of women in our cognitive associations. Furthermore, as we will subsequently discuss, using male-gendered generics has identifiable effects.

      To illustrate, in one study, individuals were asked to recite sentences that contained either he, he/she, or they as generic pronouns. (22) The study participants were then asked to verbally describe the images that came to mind. Those who read he had a disproportionate number of male images, even though the readings expressly referred to people of either gender. (23) In another experiment, participants were induced to complete sentence fragments using masculine or unbiased generics, after which they were asked to visualize the sentence and to give a first name to the person they visualized. (24) Results indicated that using masculine generics generated more male-biased imagery in the mind of the user. In yet another study, participants who were asked to create photo collages for textbook chapters selected more photos of males when chapter titles included man in the title (for example, economic man) than when the titles did not contain man in the title (for example, economic behavior). (25) Finally, McConnell and Fazio found that individuals were more likely to describe the "average person" in an occupation as male when that occupation's title was male-gendered (e.g., city councilman rather than member of city council or city councilperson). (26)

      These studies and other empirical research confirm that male-gendered generics are not actually gender-neutral, prompting their labeling as pseudo-generics or false generics. In this way, male-gendered generics are sexist because those who use them and those who hear them tend to exclude women or at least be biased toward men, even though their conscious intentions are perhaps to be inclusive.

    2. Gendered Language and Its Effect

      Everyday sexism has psychological ramifications for women. In one study, college students kept track for two weeks of everyday sexism, including traditional gender role stereotyping, demeaning and derogatory comments and behaviors, and sexual objectification. (27) The women's reporting of more sexist incidents was associated with their increased anger, more depression, and lower self-esteem. (28) Other research demonstrates the subtle deleterious effects of sexist language on the...

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