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Welcome To The (S)He World

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Have you ever felt yourself burning with anger when you come across examples of gender stereotyping in your society? Have you ever realized that you may be strengthening these stereotypes yourself? Yes, the languages we use every day help reinforce negative stereotypes in the society. Sometimes, we choose to use gender-biased language, but most of the times, it is our unconscious self, and we do not realize how the words we use, matter.

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Gender stereotyping however, is not a feature attributed only to the English language. Languages such as Hindi, Spanish, German, etc. have stricter rules for feminine and masculine words. For example, gender is given not only to people and pronouns, but also to objects. According to Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino, the only full-time psychology professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, analyzed that people who speak such gender-specific languages are generally seen to be more biased than the speakers of ‘natural gender languages’, such as English.

Tracing back to the origin of gender stereotypes, it is observed that the distinction became significant with the introduction of gender-specific roles in the society. Women being the child-bearers, stayed at home to look after the child, while the men of the family went out to work. And somehow, that became the norm with women never being given a chance to work. Gradually, men began to be described as being “strong, active, and competent” because of the work they performed, while women were being described as “gentle, benevolent, and caring”. When through the use of language, these ideas were passed on to generations after generations, this sexual division of labor became an unchangeable reality for both genders.

Upon carefully comparing the projection of men and women by the print media, it is noted that those visuals that represent the exchange of roles of both genders against the stereotype, are faced with more reaction than those depicting the stereotype. For example, a man working as a homemaker is met with more wonder and appreciation than a woman doing the same. Similarly, a woman working as an officer is also met with reactions alike. It was found that agentic and communal stereotypical characteristics are used to create distinctions between men and women. Women are described using communal terms such as “warm, helpful, tactful” while men are described using more agentic terms such as “competent, ambitious, intellectual”.

Businessman, chairman, policeman, air-hostess – are common words that in an obvious manner, conform to gender bias, defining the type of role as being gender-specific. What is more surprising is that there are no particular equivalents for these words for the opposite sex. Their so-called equivalents – businesswoman, chairwoman, policewoman, and air-host – are basically derived from the original words. In fact, it is believed that nouns and pronouns referring to the female gender are also derived from their male equivalents. For example, “woman” is basically “man” with “wo” acting as a prefix; another example being – “she” derived from “he”. Although the relevance of these facts can be questionable however, these examples do establish male dominance, to some extent. In an effort to avoid use of such gender-bias terms, we can effectively alter our vocabulary by using gender-fair terms to replace these words. For example, words such as ‘chairperson’, ‘police officer’, ‘flight attendant’, etc., can be used to build linguistic equality.

It is well known that the way we speak is a projection of the way we think. Our choice of words portray where we stand in our opinion towards an issue. Imagine having a conversation with your friends about God. How many of us use “she” to refer to God? Not many. In similar situations, we choose to use the female pronoun over the male pronoun, and vice-versa. This is a direct approach to promoting gender inequality whereby we assume certain occupations or roles to be specific to one gender. A good way to consciously avoid this is to use more generalized phrases, such as “the person” rather than creating a disparity with “he” or “she”.

A genuine argument on this matter may be reasoned with to what extent is linguistic inequality in the present world?

03 December 2019

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