Subtly Sexist Language

By Chew, Pat K.; Kelley-Chew, Lauren K. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Subtly Sexist Language


Chew, Pat K., Kelley-Chew, Lauren K., Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


"Why do I use 'chairman' instead of 'chairperson'? I hadn't really thought about it. Does it matter?"

--General Counsel of a major U.S. corporation (1)

"Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home ... the neighborhood ... the school or college ... the factory, farm, or office. Such are the places where every woman, man, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

--Eleanor Roosevelt (2)

Language can be a potent vehicle for subtle sexism. (3) As lawyers, we understand the power of words. What we say and how we say it can perpetuate gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men. In contrast, language also can be used as a constructive tool for reinforcing equality.

Sometimes, sexist language is blatant and universally shunned. Other times, it is more subtle and even socially acceptable. For instance, social science research has considered the use of male-gendered generics (the use of such words as he, man, chairman, or mankind to represent both women and men) rather than gender-neutral alternatives (such as she or he, human, chairperson, or humankind). As we will discuss, this research concludes that male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory, because their use is perceived as normative and therefore not unusual. In addition, those who use these words may not intend to cause harm. Complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction. (4)

Sexism and sexist language get an unintentional boost from people who say, "Gee, I haven't noticed it," and thus conclude that using male-gendered generics must not be a problem. Of that small group of people who are aware that language has the potential to be sexist, it is an even smaller group that understands the scope of sexist language's pervasiveness--from newspapers and textbooks, to classroom, boardroom, and courtroom presentations, to the inscriptions engraved on prized monuments, statues, and memorials.

Substantial interdisciplinary research and commentary have underscored the use of male-gendered pronouns and nouns as a form of subtle sexism in various settings. (5) Yet, there is a surprising absence of discussion on the use and effect of these words among lawyers, law faculty, law students, and judges. (6) Given the declarations of law schools, law firms, and courts on their commitment to nonsexist and diverse environments, one might expect that legal professionals would no longer use male-gendered generics since alternative gender-neutral options are available. Given the persistent signs of gender discrimination and the lack of gender parity in the profession, (7) one might question whether a causal relationship exists between sexist language used in the legal community and sexism more broadly in these settings.

We noticed, however, that some law teachers, students, and professionals continue to use male-gendered generics in their conversations, both inside and outside the classroom, and in their writings. This observation prompted us to research the subject more thoroughly to see if our impression of the ongoing use of these words in the legal community was accurate. If so, what are the implications of this conduct given the social science research on the effects of sexist language?

Drawing from interdisciplinary research, we synthesized the research on subtly sexist language and, particularly, the use of male-gendered generics. We discovered a consensus among social science researchers that male-gendered generics are examples of subtle sexism. (8) Based on our original empirical analysis, we also studied the use of male-gendered words by judges in their judicial opinions, lawyers in their legal briefs, and faculty and other authors in law review articles.

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