Semantics and Gender Equality: When it Really IS a BIG DEAL

I never used to notice it, and if I did, I thought it was a rather inconsequential detail. “It’s not a big deal,” I would’ve said, complete with an exasperated sigh and eye roll to signify my time being wasted on trivial matters.

Actually, though, it was a big deal, and it still is. What is it? The androcentric nature of the English language.

Androcentric (male-centred or dominated) language is evident in many ways. Here are just a few examples…

  • Using words like ‘man’, ‘men’, or ‘mankind’ to supposedly include women and/or all humanity
  • Using male pronouns such as ‘he’ or ‘him’ to supposedly include both genders
  • Saying ‘man and wife’ at a wedding, instead of ‘husband and wife’ [speaking of which, this is a good example of ‘focus fronting’ – the tendency to put the male first]
  • Words and phrases like ‘fireman’, ‘policeman’, ‘chairman’, ‘middle man’, ‘man down’, or ‘businessman’ to refer to both women and men

Have you noticed this in your circles? Or perhaps even in your own speech? You can probably think of loads of these occurrences and more if you give it a moment or two.

But why is this such a big deal? Isn’t it just a few inconsequential words? Shouldn’t I (and others) just understand that ‘it is meant to include women too’?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that language actually functions as a way of defining experience and shaping the worldview of its speakers. This means that language is much more than words. It can expand or limit your worldview. It can include or exclude. It expresses who you are and what you believe. So, when I observe the androcentricity of the English language, I see a symptom of a much more fundamental problem: a deeply rooted gender inequality.

So, what can we do? I believe it is important to not just define a problem, but also propose a solution. Critiques must be matched with vision and practical suggestions for change, otherwise it’s just complaining. Here are some of my suggestions (feel free to comment with your own as well):

  • Be inclusive in our own language. Use words like ‘people’, ‘humankind’, ‘humanity’ and others that include rather than exclude.
  • Speak up. Language will not change magically or if only a few people do something. When you notice language that excludes men or women, say something. Call it out.
  • Dig Deep. Language is powerful, but suggests a deeper belief system. How do you believe and act for greater gender equality in your world in all areas?

As always, remember this: “Patient persistence pierces through indifference; gentle speech breaks down rigid defenses.” Proverbs 25:15


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