Gender-Biased and Sexist Language


My Project

In this project, the local issue I decided to focus on was gender-biased and sexist language. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve noticed how words and the way we communicate can affect us. Especially when it defines us as people or our certain characteristics in reference to our gender. With that said, this leads me to try and understand what exactly gender-biased and sexist language is. Also how we can avoid/stop using such expressions or words when communicating with one another. That’s why with this project my main goal is to try and educate others on such topic and introduce alternatives, it being gender-neutral language, into our vocabulary to avoid discrimination.

This goal was created in efforts to try and contribute to the UN Sustainable development goal of gender equality. I believe language and the way we communicate has a large impact on how we view and treat others. So, if I can make people think about the kinds of words they are using and how it contributes to bias towards a persons sex or gender then I can create a shift. Meaning I can possibly change the way people communicate, creating a more welcoming and accepting environment with the use of gender-neutral language. Hopefully sparking a change, as people become more aware of the inequalities between genders.  

Have you recently used gender-biased or sexist language?
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How Gender-Biased and Sexist Language Came to Be

If we were to recognize a major flaw in the way we communicate and use language it would be that it is one of the most powerful ways through which sexism and gender discrimination is perpetuated. The reason for this is because gender-biased and sexist language is language that excludes one gender or implies that one is superior to​ the other. In continuation, when looking at language as a social construction we notice a system of communication that reflects our social context. Meaning language is culturally established, following our social or societal codes and traditions. 

In addition, since language is shaped by our society it, directly and indirectly, reflects gender stereotypes. Which is this idea of expectations men and women should uphold because of their assigned gender at birth. As an example, historically men and women have held different social roles. Men were required or more likely to participate in tasks that needed speed, strengths, and to be gone from home for a long period of time. While women have been more likely to stay at home and direct their full-time attention to family tasks and childbearing. These activities and assumed characteristics then cause us to use words that are to link to traits that are stereotypically associated with either group (Maass & Arcuri, 1996). 

In images such as these women are often described as caring and patient, while men are described as efficient and assertive.

Furthermore, if we were to go into the psychology of this topic our word choices directly affect our cognitive process, so the way we think. Words and phrases that are consistent with gender stereotypes have a strong influence, especially when presented at a hidden level. The reason for this is because it leads people to classify gender pronouns, words and phrases more quickly into male and female categories (Banaji & Hardin, 1996). 

Common words Associated with Women: 
Common words Associated with Men: 

Sexist Phrases

Now that we know a bit about the background and psychology of this topic, when did sexist phrases become a thing? Well as we know gender stereotypes are a common factor in our society, and when we seem to diverge from those characteristics that are supposed to be innate to us we respond with phrases that seem to keep us in check. This type of behavior in gender studies is called gender policing. Which is the enforcement of our gender norms, this in return reinforces the idea of a gender binary. The classification of gender as two opposite forms of masculinity and femininity. Below are some of the most common phrases I’ve heard, which end up doing more harm than good.

“You throw like a girl”

“Be a man”

“Don’t be such a wuss”

“You’re a girl you should know better”

“Toughen up”

“Who wears the pants”

“Grow a pair”

“Man up”

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Male Generics*

*Generics are characteristic of or relate to a class or group of things.

Male generics as explains by Sherryl Kleinman are words or phrases that address men directly and indirectly. Meaning while they are used to describe men and their position they are also used as the “neutral term” for both genders. For example look at the words freshman, chairman, and mankind. While they refer to both men and women the words secondhandly address one gender. Kleinman states these kinds of words reinforce “a system in which “man” in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women” and “It’s no accident that “man” is the anchor in our language and “woman” is not.” Based on the history of gender stereotypes.

One of the most popular male generics is “you guys”, while it’s used to refer to a group of boys often girls use it amongst themselves. It is also widely used when there is one boy in a group of girls. Also, rather than saying “you all” or “Y’all”, including myself, just lump the girls in with the boy. This at first seems harmless, however, after a while, it can make people feel left out especially women. For example, below, is a story Kleinman includes in her essay where she recalls a colleague’s daughter experience with the phrase “you guys”.

A colleague’s five-year-old daughter recently left her classroom crying after a teacher said, “What do you guys think?” She thought the teacher didn’t care about what she thought. When the teacher told her that of course she was included, her tears stopped. But what was the lesson? She learned that her opinion as a girl mattered only when she’s a guy. She learned that men are the norm.

Which male generic do you use often?
“You guys”
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In this audio clip, I interview Maria, who is an 18-year-old senior. I ask her what her experience with gender-bias and sexist language has been and the kind of impacts it has on her life. Her also Portuguese offers a different perspective on the topic. She makes interesting point regarding how she and her family use such language and the kind of change that needs to happen in order to move more towards gender-neutral language

In this audio clip, I interview Alexander. He is 13-years-old and currently in seventh grade. When deciding what o interview for my project I though Alexander would make a great person as we would offer the perspective from the younger generation regarding my topic. Also, because he identifies as a boy her would offer a different experience that from Maria when it comes to the language used.

My take on Gender-Bias and Sexist Language

Gender-Neutral Language ( Quick tips)

  • When speaking or writing about an unknown person try to avoid using male pronouns such as he/him. Instead, make them plural, so use they or them.
  • Try to not use words that are inherently sexist like “mankind”, and look for alternatives.
MankindHumanity or Humen race
Male Nurse Nurse
Fireman Firefighter
Waiter (m) Waitress (f)Server
  • Most importantly, avoid using phrases that are influenced by a person gender, while some are okay with the phrases discussed above others are not. So it’s always better to be safer than sorry.

To finish off, while these are simple tips they go a long way, making small changes in the way speak and using said alternatives is what causes people to think and change their behavior.

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My overall experience

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Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Rebecca Malamud

    I had no idea the phrase was called “Male Generics;” that’s very interesting. I also really liked that you used multiple types of media to interact with and give information to your audience (polls, audio clips, video, images). I also thought that the charts containing phrases and words to describe men and women were very informative as well.

    • April 26, 2019 by Adriana.Castro Colon

      I also had no idea phrases like “you guys” had a name, so when I came across this information I knew I had to include it. I am also glad to hear you enjoyed my presentation.

  2. April 26, 2019 by Sheena.Kwon

    Your presentation was really nicely organized and I love how interactive it is! I really enjoyed the different colors you used to enhance you presentation. The interviews and videos you put in were very helpful as well. I think everyone can start using nongendered language. I’m from Texas and I use ‘y’all’ instead of saying ‘you guys.’ An essay you might be interested in is “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” by Gloria Anzaldua. It talks about how language is a male discourse and how it can be detrimental towards women.

    • April 26, 2019 by Adriana.Castro Colon

      Thanks for the recommendation, It’s a really interesting essay. I wish I came across it sooner!

  3. April 27, 2019 by Sierra Erdman-Luntz

    I like all of your specific examples 🙂 thank you!

  4. April 28, 2019 by Alex.Lepa

    Hi Adriana,
    Thank you for your project. It was very interesting and I will now be more aware of my language. Thanks.

  5. April 28, 2019 by Evie Tomita

    Hi Adriana! I loved your project because it was incredibly interactive with all the videos, surveys, and padlets! It really helped me collect my thoughts along the way and make sure I was absorbing all the information. Great job!

  6. April 28, 2019 by Kristina Peterson

    Adriana. I love the part where you say you ‘like challenge.’ I am impressed to see how you learned about this topic from start to finish and looked for ways to bring the issue of gender neutral language to your peers. I remember hearing Maya Angelou speak and her telling us to ‘be precise.’ If we use language, we must know each choice has meaning.

  7. April 28, 2019 by Ricardo A. Velázquez Aponte

    Hi Adriana!

    I would like to start by saying congratulations on the great documentation and research done for this project. As a male student in Puerto Rico, a native Spanish speaking country, I recognize the impact language has on people, especially women. I have to say that after watching your reflection video, not only it made me think about the magnitude of the situation, but it also made me realize the possibility to consider language as a barrier itself. There are some modifications young people are implementing in the Spanish language, like the use of “e” as an alternative to male and female gendered articles, which can be a great topic for further study. I really enjoyed your work and would definitely like to hear more about your future research and discussions.

    Best regards,

    Ricardo A. Velázquez Aponte

  8. April 29, 2019 by Ashli.Jain

    This is awesome! I think that we all have sub-conscious gender language biases and this made me try and be more conscious!

  9. May 05, 2019 by Takuma.Warren

    This was a very interactive and interesting article. I didn’t know what a male generic was so that was an interesting new concept.

  10. May 05, 2019 by Hana.Himura

    Hi Adriana,
    I really like how interactive your presentation is with interviews, polls, and videos. I never knew that there was a term called “Male Generics” and we all subconsciously use them. It shows how deep-rooted this problem is in our society and made me think more about my use of language.

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