Perspectives from ISB

The advent of language heralded the ‘ease of doing business (communication)’ in the world as it existed. Expressions became easier, words flowed freely. Everything had a name, an identity, that was just its own. But language keeps evolving, like Tennyson’s Brook, “for men may come and men may go, but I go on forever”. After that, where words fell short, the world of innovative millennials expressed through the language of emoticons, for expressions may convey what words fail to.

Language is also a great unifier–think of the euphoric feeling when we encounter someone who is a member of our lingua franca, especially in an alien surrounding. But the same thread that binds can also exclude, and this article aims to explore how language excludes genders and can reinforce gender stereotypes.

Need for a Gender-Sensitive Lexicon

What if you realise that your dictionary does not allow you to convey effectively? You add to, subtract from and transform the dictionary. But what if you realise your dictionary excludes you at a subliminal level, where even though the expressions exist, they don’t recognise you. They recognise a group similar to you, but not ‘you’. Or what if the expressions you but are conspicuous by absence in literature because they are not the expressions of choice or convention?

How language may discriminate – an introduction to Gender-Biased Language

Gender-biased language uses words or phrases that consciously (not necessarily intentionally) discriminate against some genders, e.g., Fire Man. Would you feel included being part of a profession where the very name denotes a specific gender? This also occurs at a subliminal level where language expression effectively acts as a barrier for other genders. For e.g., the default pronoun in common parlance usually is ‘he’, and the default prefix is ‘Mr.’, so let’s consider a job advertisement that states: ‘The company is looking for a CEO. He is expected to hold a Master’s Degree from an Ivy League Institution’. Would you feel included as a prospective applicant to apply for the role of this CEO if you do not identify as the gender that uses the pronoun ‘he’?

The usage of language has evolved to be a part of the framework that conforms to the heteronormative world, e.g., drop-down columns in a form where the Gender options are ‘Male/Female’. Ask yourself, would you feel included as an individual who does not identify with heteronormativity? Language is a medium for transmitting inter-generational knowledge and wisdom. But often, this process involves attributing adjectives that are based on gender, e.g., a ‘strong’ man, or a ‘sweet’ girl. These adjectives become so representative of a particular gender that their usage is normalised.Have you ever used the term ‘a sweet man’?  Language can reinforce gender stereotypes, e.g., housewife or tomboy. Have you felt a pang of unfamiliarity when you refer to someone as a house-husband? Why is that?

Genders, apart from the male gender are usually not the ‘norm’ in theory and conversations (which follow from our language)–an instance being a common assumption in theory, which talks about the ‘rational economic man’. Let’s pause and ponder, has our language evolved keeping in focus the male perspective, and should we now retrofit the other genders into our language?

Way Forward: Language as a Tool to Fight Gender Bias

The DNA of language speaks of evolution, and hence, the way forward passes through the lanes of language, where Gender Fair Language (GFL) aims to make the language gender-sensitive. The evolution would mean replacing gender-biased terms and creating a new lexicon that fosters inclusivity.

As goes the adage (with some modification), ‘Art imitates Life, Life imitates Art’. Hence, the art and science of language is in a virtuous cycle with the trajectory of our societal evolution. We have an opportunity to reflect, identify and re-write the future of our language(s). And this, in turn, can potentially change our society’s future!

Author Bio : Katyayani Sanjay Bhatia is a participant of the AMPPP Co’24 at the Indian School of Business. She is working in the Indian Revenue Service (Income Tax) and is currently posted in Delhi as Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax. She is an avid reader, a fitness enthusiast, a handloom lover, and has keen interest in Indian Art and Culture. She is passionate about gender issues and has been associated with various fora, including the prestigious Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie.

DISCLAIMER : The views expressed in this blog/article are author’s personal.

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