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Expert Comment: Navigating linguistic equality

Language 150x150 Wednesday 15 June 2016

The implications of using the collective nouns ‘guys’ and ‘girls’ is explored by Senior Lecturer in Modern History Dr Sonja Tiernan and Senior Lecturer in English Language Dr Linda McLoughlin. The pair look at how the terms have evolved and why their use in the workplace can be a contentious issue.  

Dr Sonja Tiernan

Referring to adult women as girls may be acceptable in certain circumstances, generally when it is women referring to themselves in this way. As women have progressively moved closer to achieving full gender equality, this impacts not only on careers but also on social life. In the 21st century, women are financially independent and not reliant on men to accompany them on social occasions anymore and so the ‘girls’ night out’ has become a popular modern phenomenon. Women referring to themselves as girls in this context sounds like a more enjoyable night out than an evening with a group of women. Why so?

Undoubtedly, referring to women as girls denotes females as immature and flighty - all elements that can lead to a frivolous night on the town. The same reasons that this term is not acceptable when referring to a group of female workers. Certainly it is not acceptable for male co-workers or managers to refer to their female colleagues as girls, this undervalues women’s work, opinions and ultimately position within their employment sector. While women remain underrepresented across a host of sectors; in politics, on company boards, in senior management, and still earn comparatively less than men in Britain, words matter. Legislation is in place to ensure women are treated equally in the workplace. However, laws do not automatically change attitudes. Terminology impacts on attitudes and until views change to reflect legislation, women will not achieve gender equality in the workplace. The opposite collective term for men as guys, which although historically a negative connotation relating to Guy Fawkes and associated with a man of dubious intent, is now seen as representing go-getters in work terms. In America, the ultimate sign of disrespect is for a white person to call an African-American man a boy. I am not comparing such racist terminology - clearly linked to slavery - with calling women girls in the workplace, however, this animates how a seemingly innocent term can be offensive in the extreme and used to demote an individual.        

Dr Linda McLoughlin

The case of the generic masculine, words like 'he/man', is an issue which is perennially misreported in the media and widely discussed within the academy. The fight for equal words is often labelled as a misdirection of feminists' (and other reasonably minded individuals’) energy. Recent comments regarding the use of 'guys and girls' in the workplace is a further case of marked and unmarked usage in language. The claim that 'guys' includes women as well as men may for some be seen as unmarked, but as a recent call to a local company 'gutter guys' established, its workforce does in fact only include men. Some people may well imagine men as well as women in phrases like 'guys in the office', but clearly imagine only women on hearing 'girls in the office'. Therefore, the two terms are not symmetrical.

As long ago as 1980, Wendy Martyna reported that 'seven times as many males as females say they see themselves in response to sex-neutral sentences referring a "person" or "human being".  In general, males appear to be using and misunderstanding "he" in its specific more often than its generic sense’.  The implications for the workplace are clear, as a study by Bem and Bem in 1975 found. In their study to assess the impact of sex-biased job advertisements, they reported that sex unbiased advertisements encourage more high school females to apply for male-related jobs.

The case for linguistic equality is not an either/or 'battle'. Linguist-anthropologist Edwin Sapir reminds us of the psychological implications of language: 'it is not too much to say that one of the really important functions of language is to be constantly declaring to society the psychological place held by all of its members'. The collective nouns 'guys' and 'girls' is unsatisfactory and workplaces should be advised against this language. A final word from Martyna: “The arguments against sexist language have been mistranslated more often than not. Those mistranslations have then been responded to by opponents of language change. Clarifying these, and synthesizing the case against sexist language, can help to offset the continuing, annoying trivialization of this issue, which has constituted a major roadblock on the path toward a language that speaks clearly and fairly of both sexes.”

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