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Gender bias in language

What is gender bias?

Gender bias is refers to the discrimination or general dislike towards people based on their
gender and not based on their personal traits, however it can also be connected to different types of
systematic differentiations based solely on the gender of the individual.
Gender bias is connected to several kinds of attitudes. One way of gender biased thinking is
when an individual believes that one gender is more valuable than the other. This bias is more
commonly known as male or female chauvinism. Another display or bias is the attitude of
misogyny or misandry (hate of women and men), loosely connected to the forced imposition of
limited or false notions of masculinity and femininity on males and females alike. Theres also the
sense of distrust towards the opposite or same sex in general.
Beliefs that cause bias towards one of the two genders are set deeply inside a mindset where
individuals can be judged based only on the characteristics of the group which they are a part of. In
the case of gender bias it is their gender group male or female. Gender discrimination as an
occurrence is considered illegal in many countries, and most countries have devised special laws,
privileges and rights in order to support one or both sexes.
A common form of gender bias is that men are superior to women. It is often called male
chauvinism, where chauvinism itself represents any extreme and unreasonable hatred and dislike
towards a rival group. There is also the similar term called gynophobia, which is centered around
the fear of females and femininity. Throughout history there were cases, especially in patriarchal
societies, where women have been viewed as the weaker sex. The lower status of women is
obvious in those cases where female residents werent recognized under law as persons. In order to
dress issues of equality under law there exists the feminist movement, which is in simple terms a
movement that promotes womens rights and fights to end sexism against females such as
inequality under law, the political representation of females, access to education and employment,
domestic violence and so on.
The view where women are considered superior to men is also a form of gender bias. Sexism
against men is considered reverse sexism. However, around the world, and especially in the third
world countries, gender bias is commonly used to describe discrimination against women. On the
other hand, India has for example made huge efforts in fighting against discrimination by bringing
and establishing new laws, and allowing women certain privileges. But in order for sexism to be
truly beaten extra effort will be needed by men also, so that women can live equally in this world.

Gender bias as noticed in speech and writing

The influence of gender bias is very powerful and not to be ignored. Language is the way we
communicate. However, it is often easy to send out the wrong message and be interpreted in the
wrong way, because language is a very complicated tool, with a great deal of variety within its
structure. There are situations where during a conversation with someone we have to pay close
attention to that persons linguistic genealogy. There are many people who, unconsciously and
unintentionally, use language that could be considered highly prejudicial and biased. The true
question here is : is the language itself the source of the bias, or is it only a reflection of the already
existing condition of bias within the speaker himself.
Many people would claim that the daily language in use is already biased itself. There are many
words, and not only in English, that exist or have existed (many of which have been changed with
the increasing efforts towards achieving a politically correct language) that have from the start been
gender biased towards women. As an example both English and Serbian have been formed in a way
so that men are always identified with respectable and extinguished positions, while women are
closer identified with the service oriented positions where they are under the supervision and
domination of men. The type of language that is used to denote this kind of male supremacy
generally reflects the honoured position of the male and the subordinate position of the female.
Everywhere you look, even in relationships, the male of the house is more often referred as the man
of the house, even if the male is in fact a small child. It is highly degrading to imply that even a 10
year old male, based simply on his gender, is more competent and capable of taking care of the
household affairs and business better than his possibly educated, and highly intellectual mother.
A simple example of word pairs can be used to even better illustrate that bias in language is
quite common and deeply embedded. Almost always is the masculine word put before the feminine
word. For example: Mr. and Mrs. , his and hers, boys and girls, men and women, kings and queens,
brothers and sisters, guys and girls, and host and hostess are all commonly used in todays society.
Even the most common formal letter usually begin with Dear Sir or Madam,. Almost exactly the
same example exist in the Serbian language, so similar in fact that even if directly translated the
semantic meanings, and with them the gender bias they bring, would be translated along with them.
This is evidence that the semantic use of many of the English and Serbian words is also a great
contributor to the bias present in the English language.
There is another instance where women are portrayed as passive while men are the ones who
are active and bring things into being. If we look at the example of a typical wedding ceremony.(3)
In the beginning of the ceremony, the father is the one who gives the bride away, and he is the one
who answers, I do. This is where gender bias shows its face. The traditional concept of the bride is
as something that is supposed to be given from one man to the other, and this concept is
perpetuated. Another clear example of bias is the instance of sexual relationships. The women
become brides, while the men are the ones who wed women. The man takes away a womans
virginity and the woman loses her virginity. This refers to the womans inability, supposedly due to
her gender, to hold on to something that is a part of her, and this gives the man his right (due this
ability) to take possession of something that is not his. There are more positive connotations to
being a man rather than those that are connected to being a woman.

Masculine and feminine terms can have very different connotations, and so the distinctions
make the females separate and unequal. If it is written, In the nineteenth century, the kings of
nonsense were Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, the reader understands the message to mean that
those two men were the best of all nonsense writers at that time. But if the quote says, The queen of
twentieth-century nonsense is Gertrude Stein, the implication is unequivocal - Gertrude Stein is,
among female writers of nonsense, the best. It leaves completely open her ranking relative to males.
In everyday language, it is quite normal to hear phrases like Everybody must turn in his paper
by Tuesday, or An assistant professor has to get along with his colleagues if he wants to get
tenure.(1) In both example the use of the masculine pronoun unconsciously forms the idea that
males are more intelligent and capable. There are also the more colloquial phrases like Be a man!
and Hes got balls which imply that men are braver and stronger than women and relate those
characteristics with masculinity. It is quite common that most biases that people obtain come from
what is taught in early childhood. People will believe in the words they receive as children. Words
we hear as young adults follow us and shape our thoughts throughout the rest of our lives. As
children attend school and interact with adults, teachers, and each other, the first stages of linguistic
prejudices begin. Many teachers do not realize that stories read to children have numerous
linguistic biases deeply etched inside of them.

Dealing with gender biased language

Gender biased language is basically any usage that excludes or stereotypes one gender. The
most common example is the usage of he as a generic pronoun like, for example, using he
instead of he or she in the sentence The student should be encouraged so that he would be able to
improve his skills. Similar examples are along the lines of using the term man to include all
people, as in All of mankind would benefit from this brand new idea. Another very common
example is the subtle stereotyping of gender roles. This may as well be mostly subjective and
dependent on whether the reader or listener is looking for those instances on purpose, but there are
still some recognizable cases. Sentences like A doctor should respect his patients and A nurse
should respect her patients perpetuates sexist stereotypes.(1)
The problem of gender based language is by no means a new thing. It has been there for a long
time. In the modern world more and more attention has been devoted to the issue of using
politically correct language. It is of the highest priority to introduce and implement politically
correct language into the modern-day school. Why the sudden importance? Because gender biased
language is imprecise. Using a gender specific word to refer to a mixed group is vague, misleading
and even comical. Furthermore, it can be seen as very rude and offensive. Even if one doesnt
wish to be sexist, gender biased language can easily insult ones readers or listeners. Studies have
shown that when using the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to
think female. And in the end, the use of politically incorrect language adds more life the
stereotypes and unintentionally influences the way people define other and themselves. It is this
last instance that is most important in the school environment, and hence the most responsibility
falls onto the teachers themselves.

All the facts mentioned are as relevant in Serbia, just as they are anywhere else. Aside from the
many important issues everyone deals with day by day, attention should still be devoted to this
problem. There is always a little something each and everyone of us can do in order to help mend
one of the worlds problems even by a little bit. The use of gender-biased language is a very live
issue today and one way of dealing with it is by removing biased phrases from our vocabulary and
replacing them with more appropriate ones that are not offensive. For example, businesses and
individuals have been sued, because job descriptions used he and it seemed to exclude women
whether or not the exclusion was intended (2). Therefore, gender-free language is an important
part of both the school and the working environment.
Aside from the possible legal punishment, there are much more important moral consequences
when using and allowing such derogatory way of speaking in the classroom or work environment.
Studies have proven \ the negative parts of any difference in attitude play on children in the process
of growing up. If a teacher shows any kind of favour and many students might feel unworthy of the
teachers affection. There is also the case where teachers pay more attention to boys, rather than
girls, which occurs almost daily. Research has shown that gender-bias in the classroom diminishes
girls self esteem, expectations and even opportunities later in life.(2) On the other hand, the act of
excluding girls and their feminine nature in language itself will reinforce stereotypes and teaches
young children to grow up with sexist ideas on the subconscious level.
A lot of attention was devoted to this issue and there were many articles written on the problem
of bias in the English language. The main focus was usually on the different rules for written and
spoken language, some dealing with race and ethnicity, while others referred to age and education,
but the leading interest befell the area of gender.(4) Prof. Vanderhoof suggests a simple tripartite
classification of the problems of gender bias and gives the respective ideas of how these could be
dealt with.
He states, first of all, that one should deal with the use of the word man to denote to all
people, which is highly common and quite easy to correct.
- There are many other alternatives that include both men and women in their meaning that can
be used. We can remove its generic use by including words such as person, individual, human,
or human being.
Example: A man who is depressed really needs a friend.
Alternative: Someone who is depressed really needs a friend.
Example: For centuries, men have struggled to find the meaning of life.
Alternative: For centuries, people have struggled to find the meaning of life.
- Mankind can be replaced by humankind, humanity, human race
Example: This policy would benefit all of mankind.
Alternative: This policy would benefit all of humanity.

Secondly, we should avoid using gender-specific pronouns. This problem can be approached
from several perspectives so that we make sure that sexist sentences like the one bellow appear as
rarely as possible.
Example: Each employee should read his packet carefully.
- Since the use of the neutral is out of the question, a possible solution is to use both pronouns, i.e.
pronoun pairs, every time, e.g.:
Alternative: Each employee should read his or her packet carefully.
Sometimes the pronouns can be abbreviated to she/he or even s/he.
- Another very common approach lately has been the otherwise grammatically incorrect use of a
pronoun in plural to refer to a subject in singular:
Alternative: Each employee should read their packet carefully.
Though this might sound strange at first, people easily get used to hearing and using it, so it is a
fairly good alternative.(4) In any case, such usage is something normal for the novels of Jane
Austen, for at her time using their in both singular and plural has been as normal as using your
today in a similar way, i.e. to refer to subjects both in singular and plural.
Using either of these methods might work once, but using them several times over will slow
the reading down dramatically and draw attention to their very use. So, the easiest way to avoid
such occurrences is to convert the noun to its plural form and rewrite the sentence accordingly:
Alternative: Employees should read their packets carefully
Lastly, we a simple of subtle gender stereotyping should be discussed. For this to be prevented
people would have to remember that even though some occupations, or hobbies, may be connected
with certain gender, the association is never absolute and definite. When talking about such
occupations, one should never come to a conclusion that all individuals concerned with it are of
one gender or the other. (2)
Example: In recent years, women have been spending less on sewing supplies than they have in the
Alternative: In recent years, people have been spending less on sewing supplies than they have in
the past.
Nowadays, using politically-correct language means the natural replacement of more crude,
incorrect terms, with more adequate alternatives. Another thing that should always be avoided are
the all too familiar gender-biased titles. This could be easily corrected by
1. Using Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs.
2. Using a married womans first name instead of her husband's
Example: Mrs. John Smith
Alternative: Mrs. Jane Smith
3. Using Dear Sir or Madam or To Whom It May Concern instead of Dear Sir in letters to
unknown persons.

There are numerous reasons why gender-biased language is dangerous. Even with the greatest
efforts it is still widely present even today. However, there are always ways to fight something that
only in the language. The only problem is that fight will be a very slow process. One should stop
and think for oneself What can I do to help?
One fairly simple and effective thing that each person could do is start employing and paying
attention to the use politically correct language in his own mother tongue. It is as simple as
replacing a couple of words with one another. As time moves on, the need to be politically correct
will be more imminent, so why not start now. And why not pass it onto the young generations of
today step by step, instead of waiting for the problem to resolve itself.
There are many reasons for using politically-correct language in everyday life. For that reason
should all spend some time thinking about how we could make our point in conversation while
thinking about some of these questions: How often do we think about gender issues when preparing
to go out, or while going to work? Do we try to be objective in using gender-biased words? Have
we explained to our friends and family what gender bias is, and do we insist on them using the
acceptable alternatives? How do the men and women feel in our communities? Do we give equal
chance to females in conversation, or do we have an easier time accepting opinions from men? Do
we know of some examples that depict women in non-traditional roles and that include many
examples of influential women?
We should all have these questions in mind because the fate of generations is in our hands, and
we certainly do not wish to be blamed for rearing a backward characteristic, such as using genderbiased language, in our youth.

1. Cogdill, Sharon and Kilborn, Judith - Avoiding Gender Bias in Pronouns
2. Goetz, Jill - Education expert: Classroom gender bias persists,
3. Guidelines For Avoiding Gender-Biased Language, an electronic article available at
4. Vanderhoof, David - Be On The Loookout Gender Bias