Daily News

Language matters in gender disparity


THERE has been much debate recently about the way women who work in Australian federal parliament are treated. This discussion has highlighte­d that society continues to place very different values on the way women and men behave.

Language – as a behaviour – holds a mirror up to these values. And changing the way we think about language is an important step towards changing the way we think about gender.

Folk wisdom provides a dizzying array of misleading accounts of how women communicat­e, many of them riddled with sexism. Proverbs tell us “women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails; they are never still”. But research tells us men talk and interrupt more – especially when speaking to women.

It’s hard to stop the proverb and folk juggernaut once it gets started. It’s much easier to tell tales. And these are tales of linguistic problems, particular­ly for women in the workplace. Descriptio­ns like “shrill”, “hysterical”, “scold”, “emotional” speak to the wider truth that women’s language is condemned more readily than men’s.

British TV producer Gordon Reece reputedly mused “the selling of (former UK prime minister) Margaret Thatcher had been put back two years” with the broadcasti­ng of Question Time, as “she had to be at her shrillest to be heard over the din”.

More recently, Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton’s raised voice made her sound “shrill” and “too much”. And Tony Abbott called Prime Minister Julia Gillard “shrill and aggressive”. Gillard suffered an onslaught of criticism for her accent, whereas Bob Hawke was celebrated for his.

Sadly, the response to linguistic judgements seems to be a desire to “fix” women’s language. Thatcher is probably the best-known example of someone who underwent a complete linguistic makeover. She famously altered her accent and her delivery and deepened her voice by nearly half the average difference in pitch between male and female voices.

“Shrill” hints at an English lexicon that does not reflect kindly on women. A lexicon is not an inanimate beast, but rather a social one. The social beast shines through in this Australian schoolyard chant:

Boys are strong, like King Kong, Girls are weak, chuck ’em in the creek. And the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “sex” highlights the correspond­ing linguistic imbalance. Here women are referred to as the “weaker”, “fairer”, “gentler” and “softer” sex, while men are the “stronger”, “sterner”, “rougher” and “better sex”.

Synonym dictionari­es like thesauruse­s are also revealing. The entry under “woman” shows an abundance of expression­s for a sexually active or available woman. Many are appallingl­y derogatory. The comparable set under “man” is considerab­ly smaller and noticeably less negative. Labels like “rake” or “womaniser” have nothing of the same pejorative sense of sexual promiscuit­y – there’s nothing equivalent to “whore” or “slut”.

Our language behaviour provides particular­ly clear windows into speech communitie­s. If you’re not convinced already, consider the staggering 2 000 expression­s for “wanton woman” that English has amassed over the years. This says it all really: a linguistic telltale of sexual double standards. Even “wanton” no longer refers to men.

These asymmetrie­s in our language are significan­t, and we haven’t even started on the maledictio­ns invoking animal terms! Language both reflects and reinforces the thoughts, attitudes and culture of the people who use it, and that’s why language matters when it comes to talking about gender.

Burridge is a professor of Linguistic­s, and Manns a lecturer in Linguistic­s. They are both from Monash University

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