Gender Based Discrimination by Use of Language

A closer look into the language discrimination that affects a lot of people. Specifically focusing on words or phrases that might not seem discriminatory at first, or that we use on day-to-day basis without thinking whether they can be interpreted as such. Moreover, the feminist point-of-view is also taken into real consideration.

Language Stereotypes

The Gender-Fair Language (GFL) aims to reduce language stereotyping by switching some phrases such as “policeman” to “police officer”. This can help to reduce the stereotyping that may be embedded into our minds when we think of working police officers, to a point where we do not just think of men any longer. By continuing to do this neutralization can be achieved in language, and in turn it can help reduce stereotyping. 

It’s easy to notice that most people tend to use the pronoun ‘he’ to explain their train of thought. In a lot of languages around the world the masculine pronouns are not only used to describe men and the non-specific user, but also when talking about mixed-gender groups. All the while the female pronouns are only used to describe women. 

Language based discrimination varies across different cultures and countries. The linguist Benjamin L Whorf wrote; “We are inclined to think of language simply as a technique of expression, and not to realise that language first of all is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain world-order, a certain segment of the world that is easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs.” Point being that the way we talk, the words we choose to say, and the order in which we say them is more important than we may be inclined to think.


Men, Women and Language

Men in PowerWhen taking non-specific examples, speaking in general contexts by using words such as ‘mankind’, we may notice a pattern. The word(s) man / men is very much apparent everywhere. These words or phrases are used traditionally to show men in power and help spread the idea that men have a higher standing social status than women. 

“A large-scale content analysis of 800,000 Reuters news messages (published in English between 1996 and 1997) found that the pronoun he was more frequent than she in the news and also appeared in more positive contexts”, as reported by the website Frontiers in Psychology. This is a very interesting phenomenon as from a very young age people start associating words with real life concepts. When thinking of specific jobs or practices that use the word man in them people can start relating those jobs with a specific gender. This does not bode well for people trying to break into male-dominated job fields. 

Women’s StatusFrontiers in Psychology reports that in accordance with the social status of women, the use of the female pronouns either went up or down as the status of women went up or down. Hence a direct correlation between the use of pronouns and real world status can be assumed. Women themselves could also be made to think that they might not belong somewhere or might not be suited for a job due to constant discriminatory language uses. While some aspects of language may evolve, i.e. the use of slang, aspects such as grammar have stayed mostly the same for thousands of years. 

Different languages also play different roles in discrimination against women. Some languages have only two genders in their language for use while others may have three or more. VOX CEPR Policy Portal reports that “In Santacreu-Vasut and Shoham (2012) it can be found that countries whose dominant language marks gender more intensively have significantly lower female labour-force participation rate. Also that, relative to men, women in those countries work more in services, and less in agriculture.” 

The Feminist Point of ViewFeminism can be described as the advocacy of women’s rights, and a movement which seeks equality on many fronts. Due to the popular belief that in many instances language positions men above women, this can certainly be considered a feminist issue as well. 

The World Economic Forum writes that “Gender scholars have argued that English is a language made by men for men with the sole purpose of representing and perpetuating their point of view. The way we see the world is therefore shaped by patriarchal traditions and this is evident in most areas of arts, culture and society.” Word choices have tendencies of marginalizing women or just flat out make them invisible at times. Additionally, in the English language the word man itself can be used to refer to the entire human race whereas the word woman is limited to referring to only women.


Different Languages and the Non-Binary

Different Languages Different discrimination “techniques” can be found in many languages. The discrimination often depends on how many gender pronouns a language has in their grammar, the slang, the geographical placement, and the culture. 

In German for example the genders are masculine, feminine and neuter. When learning the German language it is useful to learn words along with their accompanying gendered articles die-feminine, das-neuter, der-masculine, as the website Dummies explains “Why should a spoon in German be masculine, a fork feminine, and a knife neuter? Don’t worry if you don’t see any logical pattern here because there isn’t one.” The problem here lies on the fact that it also has gendered work professions. As is explained by Austin Davis of USA Today; “A male doctor is an Arzt, and a female doctor is an Arztin. Most job vacancies use only male nouns, and the national anthem pays homage to the “Fatherland.” 

The Economist explains that in Mandarin, a language spoken by 70% of China, “Female bosses, for example, are typically identified as such (eg, woman-boss), whereas male ones are not.” Countries such as Spain are already reforming the language to be more neutral and genderless as to be more equal to women. This issue is apparent in a most of the languages around the globe, as most languages were first written by men and for men. 

The Non-BinaryThe list of people discriminated by language includes non-binary people who can perhaps feel most discriminated by use of certain pronouns and words. states; “People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common. Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more. None of these terms mean exactly the same thing – but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female.” 

Most non-binary people identify with the use the pronoun ‘they’. It’s fairly common however that people will use the wrong pronouns like “he” or “she” on purpose and in order to discriminate non-binary people who want to be referred to with “they”. More recently though, the pronoun “they” has been added to the Merriam Webster dictionary for non-binary people, which is a small step forward in helping to end discrimination within the language. 



Language-based discrimination is very much existent and not just in the English language either. More language reforms that can be all inclusive and non-discriminatory are needed in order to progress further into accepting people and achieving gender-equality. Often people don’t stop to think if what they are saying or the way they are saying it is hurting somebody, but maybe we should take a step back sometimes and choose our words more carefully. 


Picture: Shutterstock / ID: 1173570004

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