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!

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?

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.

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.’

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Grow a pair?

Okay, so first of all, what use is either type of ‘ball’, e.g. ‘football’ or ‘testicle’, when pursuing a claim or needing legal representation? Would a judge be swayed by a quick kickabout or display of balls? You’d hope not. And while the first scenario might be fun to imagine, genitalia, for so many reasons, have no place in a court of law.

But then the wordplay is of course all about communicating the attributes associated with ‘balls’. ‘To have balls’ is linked to ‘courage’, so ‘representation with balls’ is meant to have positive connotations. However, ‘having balls’ is not always a good thing. ‘To have someone by the balls’, for example, means to ‘[h]ave complete control over someone or something’ (OD). And a ‘balls-up’ is ‘[a] bungled or badly carried out task or action; a mess’ (OD).  

So maybe this whole balls-business is not such a good thing to evoke after all? And if it has to be a reference to reproductive organs, why not pick ovaries instead? Unlike balls, they can’t be kicked.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Recent studies in gender and language

Below are links to recent studies in gender and language for those of you interested in an empirical perspective on the issue. The articles are open-access and can be read online or downloaded as a PDF.

Does gender-fair language pay off? The social perception of professions from a cross-linguistic perspective
Lisa K. Horvath, Elisa F. Merkel, Anne Maass and Sabine Sczesny

Warm-hearted businessmen, competitive housewives? Effects of gender-fair language on adolescents’ perceptions of occupations
Dries Vervecken, Pascal M. Gygax, Ute Gabriel, Matthias Guillod and Bettina Hannover

Capturing socially motivated linguistic change: how the use of gender-fair language affects support for social initiatives in Austria and Poland
Magdalena M. Formanowicz, Aleksandra Cisłak, Lisa K. Horvath and Sabine Sczesny

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Come on folks!

I have a bee in my bonnet about being addressed as ‘one of the guys’; whether by email or in a group, it’s always some form of ‘hi guys’ or ‘you guys’. I know it sounds kind of fun and friendly, and Oxford Dictionaries says it can also mean ‘[p]eople of either sex’ but let’s be honest, a ‘guy’ just like its namesake ‘Guy Fawkes’ is just ‘[a] man’. And just like ‘man’, also of dubious dual-meaning (see my post ‘Man, the gender-neutral?’), it doesn’t refer to ‘woman’.

I like inclusive terms as much as the next guy, which is why I hate ‘guys’. And anyway, it’s not like we don’t have a choice. What’s wrong with all the other terms out there? ‘Peeps’ is a good contender, and has no conflicting definitions; it simply stands for ‘[p]eople (often used to refer to a person’s friends or associates)’. Or how about the good old-fashioned ‘folks’? It’s equally nice and straightforward, meaning ‘[p]eople in general’. Or if you don’t like those, why not make up your own term? It’s your language, as much as the next gal’s.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It could have been me?

First human on the Moon
I have always been fascinated by space travel. As a child I loved hearing about Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around the Earth and Sigmund Jähn’s journey into space. But the only female space traveller I ever heard of was Laika, the dog.

I know things have changed quite a bit since the Mercury 13 women were prohibited from flying (Martha Ackmann wrote a fantastic account) – and of course Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova already flew into space in the 1960s. However, while women are, and always have been, part of space exploration do we really learn about them?

I went to the Kennedy Space Centre last February to find out. In fact, I was hoping for a giant exhibition of women-in-space – perhaps unsurprisingly I was in for a disappointment…

While some of the language has certainly changed – Neil Armstrong is no longer the ‘first man’ to have walked on the Moon – spacewomen were next to nowhere to be found.

So I documented the few women who were part of this (massive) display: 

Sandra Hall Magnus - NASA Astronaut
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson - NASA Test Director

And I put myself in the picture to imagine what it would have been like to travel into space.

Because whatever the Kennedy Space Centre was trying to tell me; thanks to Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Chiaki Mukai, Claudie Haigneré, Kalpana Chawla, Liu Yang and all the other spacewomen, it could have been, and can be, you or me.

Me in the picture