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Lucy Rubin: Our language reflects gender bias -- let's amend it

Working towards a less gendered language can help us expand our thinking to include transgender and nonbinary people as well as reach equality for people of all genders.

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Lucy Rubin
Contributed
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The language we speak has power over us; it influences the way we view others. Languages morph in accordance with our culture and reflect our values. By being intentional about the way we speak and working to degender our language, we can be more accepting and inclusive of transgender and non-binary individuals.

English is extremely gendered. Speakers are trained to quickly assign binary labels to all living things. Think about how quickly you assign genders to people or animals. You can probably even remember the gender of your favorite stuffed animal from your childhood — mine was a green polar bear who was a boy.

As we grow up, we are taught that everything can fit nicely into one of two categories: male or female. We speak to peers in different ways based on their gender. For instance, it is common to praise men and boys in regards to their actions while women and girls are praised in regards to their appearances. Reinforcing gender through language can be internalized and harm those who may not identify with the label they are given.

Most languages can be sorted into three categories based on their level of gender distinction, according to a 2012 study. In gendered languages, such as Spanish, genders are assigned to all nouns and given pronouns.

On the other hand, natural gendered languages only assign gender through pronouns and certain nouns. For example, English has options of he/she/they pronouns to denote gender and gendered nouns like waiter and waitress.

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Lastly, there are genderless languages which have very little gender distinction for nouns. For instance, the Finnish pronoun hän is gender neutral and can be used to refer to a person of any gender.

The language that one speaks has real world impacts on how they view themselves and others. Countries with genderless languages have higher rates of gender equality, gender inclusive public attitudes, and lower gender pay gaps than countries with gendered languages, according to a Journal of Politics study. Additionally, a 2020 Journal of Personality & Social Psychology study found that of 44 languages, 60% of the gendered languages exhibit gender prejudice while only 25% of the genderless languages do.

In English, we often use forms of nouns known as the generic masculine. For these words the gender-neutral form is the same as the masculine form. For example, a woman can be an actor, but a man cannot be an actress. Generic masculine forms set men as the default and cause gender bias according to a study conducted by Tel Aviv University. For example, a 2012 study found that women are five times less likely to apply for traditionally male held jobs when they are described with generic masculine terms in comparison to gender neutral terms. Changing our language to truly neutral terms can eliminate this bias.

Gender-inclusive language has positive impacts on communities, so we should strive to be more inclusive even in everyday conversation. With these findings considered, I propose a more widespread use of they/them pronouns to be used in American English. Replacing the generic he pronoun and he/she pronouns opens the door for a more inclusive and diverse society.

We must retrain our brains to not assign gender to each person that we see — appearances do not always match gender identities. Be intentional about the language you use. Take the advice that we tell our children: Think before you speak. Putting in the work to retrain our brains may have effects on our ideas of gender as we work to be more inclusive of trans and nonbinary people.

Language reflects our culture, and our culture is changing. It is time for our language to catch up. Working towards a less gendered language can help us expand our thinking to include transgender and nonbinary people as well as reach equality for people of all genders.

Lucy Rubin is a Rochester native who attends Macalester College in St. Paul.

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