The Star Late Edition
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.