Monday, 11 September 2017

What do you say to that?

One thing I am really struggling with is everyday sexism. While it’s relatively easy (and tedious, stressful, annoying…) to point out bias in terminology, i.e. policeman, generic ‘he’ etc., I find it much harder responding to less obvious prejudice and exclusion. For example, in a recent work situation I guided a group of people (all male) to a workshop and during the general welcome chit-chat the following occurred*:

Participant 1: Where are you from?
Me: I’m from Germany
Participant 1 (to participant 2): You've lived in Europe, haven’t you?
Participant 2: Yes
Me: Whereabouts did you live?
Participant 2: In Latvia and Poland
Me: Oh great. How did you like it? Where did you like best?
Participant 2: Hmm
Participant 1: Haha Where the prettiest girls lived of course

Now, some might argue that nothing particular happened in this interaction. That all was perfectly harmless and normal. But it is precisely this ‘normality’ which bothers me; that it’s perfectly ‘everyday’ to make such remarks. Just think: if the reverse just sounds plain weird: Where the prettiest boys lived... why should reducing women to a country ‘highlight’ be okay?

In an all-male environment we might have had a brief chuckle or even a shared bonding moment. Power would have been affirmed. But as myself, a woman in an all-male group, I felt self-conscious. Othered. Ashamed. Disrespected. No longer the group co-leader but a mere body. Moreover, I felt silenced – and not only because the comment seemed inappropriate, but also because I was in a work situation. And work situations come with their own norms and regulations, i.e. it’s much harder to say ‘f-off’!

So readers I need your help! How do you deal with these situations? What do you say to that?

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*The above conversation is recorded from memory. While the words might not have been spoken in this exact order, the sexism is remembered perfectly.


Monday, 3 July 2017

Holiday snapshots

I'm just back from a much-needed camping holiday in sunny Europe (I have finally completed my PhD research, hurray!) But once you start seeing the world through a feminist lens there is hardly ever any time off... However, amidst the usual linguistic male-as-norm I spotted some DIY changes which made me very happy.

The first was a notice at a supermarket in Switzerland, the second a 'correction' of a tram stop sign in France:

Jedefrau welcome!


What about women's rights?


Vielen Dank, merci beaucoup and keep up the good work!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Hurray to End of the Road!

Savages' Jehnny Beth
I’m just back from the End of the Road festival and loved all the female energy and power! My absolute highlights were:

Shopping – Wind up
Goat – Run to your mama
Savages – F*ckers

Can't wait till next year!

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

God rhymes with…

I’ve just been on a weekend residential course with the fantastic ‘Raised by Feminists’ project. During one of the sessions, I tried my hand at modern calligraphy – led by Fiona Mitchell – and really enjoyed making big swirly words with a feminist message.



I particularly liked the following quote by Emmeline Pankhurst as she deliberately plays with pronouns: ‘Trust in God – she will provide’. But after a few hours of focussing on producing elaborate letters, my spelling skills slipped… So in my world, God doesn’t ‘provide’ but ‘prod’.



But maybe that’s what she should be doing anyway – prod patriarchy. We could do with a little help to finally put it in its place!

Monday, 4 July 2016

Hold your tongue

Lots of preconceptions exist about the way women and men use language. Many speakers, for example, believe that women are more polite than men, or that men speak more confidently than women. In Chapter 8 of Women Talk More Than Men: …And Other Myths about Language Explained, Abby Kaplan debunks these notions.

First of all, Kaplan shows that speakers’ ideas about language use depend on context. In the U.S., for example, women’s speech is considered ‘indirect and polite’ and men’s ‘direct and blunt’, whereas in Madagascar ‘it’s men who … act appropriately and maintain good social relationships’ and [w]omen [who] … display anger and behave in other socially inappropriate ways’ (160-1). Speech is therefore linked to social norms not biology.

This is confirmed by Kaplan’s analysis of related empirical research; in line with Western social expectations studies show that ‘men engaged in more task-oriented behavior’ and ‘women engaged in more social-emotional behavior’ (167). In short, women use language more cooperatively. However, in contrast to the popular belief that women talk more overall, research finds that it is men who ‘took significantly longer turns than women’ (171). It is bias which flags up (any) female speech and masks male monologues as ‘normal’.

Kaplan provides a fascinating and accessible insight into sex/gender and speech research. I really recommend the chapter, ‘Women talk more than men’, as both an entry point to the field and a useful overview of related empirical studies. It also includes prompts for further reflection and an in-depth bibliography – making it a valuable resource for students and scholars. To get a copy see the ISBN etc. below!

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Title: Women Talk More Than Men: …And Other Myths about Language Explained
Author: Abby Kaplan
Publication Date: 21st April 2016

ISBN: 9781107446908 (paperback) - £15.99/US$24.99
ISBN: 9781107084926 (hardback) - £59.99/US$94.99

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Sex or gender? (Part 2)

After I neatly separated the two terms in my last post (‘Sex or gender?’), I have been doing some more reading. And the more I read the less straightforward my separation seems to be!

For example, as Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet argue in Language and Gender, ‘there is no obvious point at which sex leaves off and gender begins, partly because there is no single objective biological criterion for male or female sex’ (10). The authors elaborate as follows, ‘the selection among ... criteria for sex assignment is based very much on cultural beliefs about what actually makes someone male or female’ (10). Consequently, our understanding of ‘sex’ seems to be shaped by culture as well as biology.

Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s thinking is based on Judith Butler’s inquiry into sex/gender in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler questions the understanding of ‘sex’ in purely biological terms, ‘[a]re the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?’ (9), she asks. In fact, Butler believes that ‘gender’ might to some extent create ‘sex’. She states, ‘gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture’ (10). ‘Sex’ then is far from a mere biological category; culture seems to produce bodies as much as behaviours.

So should we use ‘gender’ inclusively, that is, to refer to both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’?

I am not so sure. For one, the issue of confusion remains: does a speaker intend to refer to ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, or both? Does the listener understand this reference? Secondly, inclusive usage might again conflate ‘culture’ and ‘biology’ – which is exactly what thinkers have been trying to move away from through the separation of terms and concepts.

In effect, neither ‘sex’ nor ‘gender’ alone seem adequate for our purposes. So could a compound like ‘sex/gender’ resolve the issue? It does seem a little complicated, especially in conjunction with ‘language’, i.e. ‘sex/gender and language’. On the other hand, it certainly highlights the terms’ interrelation. What do you think?

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Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York: London: Routledge, 2007.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Sex or gender?

This month a big plug for some fantastic feminist scholarship – Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas. I have included a summary below but want to focus a bit more on the title which particularly resonates with my own research.

As you can see from my posts’ most frequent tags, ‘gender’, ‘language’, ‘women’, I  generally do not refer to ‘sex’. Moreover, the wider field I am interested in is predominantly called ‘gender and language’. And this use of ‘gender’ rather than ‘sex’ has troubled me more and more in recent years – which is why I love Thomas’ title: Because of Sex.

Effectively it is ‘sex’, defined as ‘[e]ither of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans … are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions’ (OD) which is the root cause for discrimination. And while ‘gender’, ‘[t]he state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)’ (OD), also results in bias, it is biology which is abused to justify favouritism and unequal treatment. Bluntly, it is male genitals which are considered the source of strength and dominance, while women’s reproductive organs are associated with the exact opposite, i.e. weakness and passivity.

So considering that sexism is based on ‘sex’, should linguistic sexism not be referred as such? That is, should the field of ‘gender and language’ not be more accurately called ‘sex and language’? Some might counter that grammatical gender, in particular, has nothing to do with biology. But as empirical studies continue to show, speakers tend to think otherwise: they frequently interpret both as one and the same. (See, for example, Alan Garnham et al.’s study ‘Gender Representation in Different Languages and Grammatical Marking on Pronouns: When Beauticians, Musicians, and Mechanics Remain Men’.)

It is Because of Sex that women are discriminated against in the workplace, and it is also Because of Sex that men are favoured in language. Maybe it’s time to follow Thomas’ lead (myself included!) and make that clear.


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The below summary of Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work has been copied from the Macmillan Publishers website. You can access an excerpt from the book here: Facebook First Reads.

‘Best known as a monumental achievement of the civil rights movement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act also revolutionized the lives of America’s working women. Title VII of the law made it illegal to discriminate “because of sex.” But that simple phrase didn’t mean much until ordinary women began using the law to get justice on the job—and some took their fights all the way to the Supreme Court. Among them were Ida Phillips, denied an assembly line job because she had a preschool-age child; Kim Rawlinson, who fought to become a prison guard—a “man’s job”; Mechelle Vinson, who brought a lawsuit for sexual abuse before “sexual harassment” even had a name; Ann Hopkins, denied partnership at a Big Eight accounting firm because the men in charge thought she needed "a course at charm school”; and most recently, Peggy Young, UPS truck driver, forced to take an unpaid leave while pregnant because she asked for a temporary reprieve from heavy lifting.

These unsung heroines’ victories, and those of the other women profiled in Gillian Thomas' Because of Sex, dismantled a “Mad Men” world where women could only hope to play supporting roles; where sexual harassment was “just the way things are”; and where pregnancy meant getting a pink slip.

Through first-person accounts and vivid narrative, Because of Sex tells the story of how one law, our highest court, and a few tenacious women changed the American workplace forever.’