Thoughts on sexist language

August 2, 2022

We all want to avoid sexism in communications, but sometimes it slips in unnoticed. Here are some examples, all based on actual usages—not necessarily at the U of M.

A verbal sampling

  • Stories about “John Jones and his wife Mary.” If the story is all about John, fine—just get the punctuation right. But if it’s about the couple, this is a real no-no.
  • Same with referring to an unidentified couple as “a man and his wife.”
  • Or the phrase “my neighbor’s wife.” If she lives next door, she’s a neighbor.
  • In a series of profiles, all the profilees should be referred to on second reference the same way—not first names for females and last names for males.
  • A news article once compared, in the same sentence, the situations concerning “a male doctor” vs. “a woman doctor.” Even worse are constructions like: “She previously worked at the Acme Co. as a woman lawyer”—as if that’s different from a lawyer.

Use “female” as an adjective. There’s a reason the AP Style Manual forbids using “woman” and “women” as adjectives. No doubt it’s to treat men and women the same—unless phrases like “I’m being represented by a man lawyer” become the norm.   

But such a common practice merits a closer look.

An adjectival “woman” first reached these ears via the pejorative phrase “woman driver!” But beyond its pedigree, when a noun is asked to do an adjective’s job, it steals attention, or meaning, from the noun it modifies. For example, “woman doctor” resonates like part woman, part doctor—not wholly a doctor. Or not a real one.  

But people must be avoiding “female” for a reason. It could be that it sounds brassy, or is harder to say, because it has two long vowels, and that long “e” is especially arresting. Not many common, two-syllable adjectives share these traits.  

Visuals: the American Gothic syndrome

  • Too often, when a woman and a man are pictured, he’s facing the camera straight on while she is turned toward him and/or looking at him.
  • Likewise, with a mixed panel of two or more people, the women often seem to spend a lot of time gazing at male speakers, while the men mostly face the audience when a woman is talking. Case in point: TV news anchors.
  • And in group shots, it seems females are often turned sidewise with only part of their face visible, while one or more males face the camera straight on and therefore command attention.

Ending note

  • People frequently call every animal of indeterminate sex “he.” As in, “There’s a squirrel—look at him run.” It may feel awkward, but “it” is proper usage in these cases. And consider that assuming maleness every time may subtly encourage children to think of the world in male terms.

Debate on all these points is welcome.