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Is English a gender-biased language?


Gender bias in all aspects of life has been a hot topic for some time. In recent years, the spotlight has fallen on language. It has become increasingly unacceptable to use gender-biased English. English throws up more issues in this regard than many languages. This is primarily because most English nouns do not have grammatical gender. Nouns referring to people don’t tend to have separate forms for men and women. This aspect of English wouldn’t be quite so problematic had such nouns not been so obviously masculine. People on building sites have always been called workmen. But not anymore!

Penalising students for gender bias

language violation warningThree years ago, Hull University hit the headlines when it emerged that undergraduates would be marked down for using gender-biased language in their written work.  The guidance students received stated that “failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark”. Students at many universities in both the UK and the United States were already being cautioned to eliminate gender bias from their work. Some institutions were providing guides to gender-neutral terms. For instance, students were being advised to use “efficient” in place of “workmanlike” and “humanity” in place of “mankind”. Clearly, it is important to be aware that language is incredibly powerful and highly symbolic. It possesses enormous potential to offend. But was Hull University’s decision to penalise students for gender-bias taking things too far? Its policy was described by many as “language policing”. It is easy to dismiss a strict approach to gender bias as being overly politically correct. However, it is worth taking a closer look at the subject before rushing to judgement. The truth is that English has always been what can only be described as weaponised against women.

Why English is weaponised against women

weaponJust consider some of the everyday words used to describe males and females. When you look at these, a clear picture emerges. There are no negative connotations or alternative meanings of the word “king” but the word “queen” is a very different matter. What about the word “dog” and the female form, “bitch”? The noun for a female canine is also an insulting term for a woman. The word for a male canine has not evolved into an insulting term for a man but rather one for a woman! Of course, English is also loaded with nouns, often job descriptions, which reference only men. The use of terms such as chairman, postman, workman and many more is increasingly frowned upon. But in some cases, it has proved hard to settle on gender-neutral alternatives, such is the inherent bias of the language. The English language is riddled with gender bias and sometimes that bias is a great deal more subtle than the use of the word “bitch”. Things are changing but until very recently, grammatical rules dictated that when an individual was referred to and their gender was unknown, masculine pronouns would be used.  Research has shown that the use of gender-neutral pronouns is improving gender equality and encouraging more tolerant attitudes towards the LBGTQ community. Subconscious biases can be addressed simply by changing the words that we choose to use. While Hull University’s approach to gender bias at first glance seemed extreme, there is no doubt that language has the power to reinforce and legitimise inequalities. With many people now not wishing to be identified as either male or female, the situation is more complex and nuanced than ever before. It is crucial to choose your words carefully!

How can you eliminate gender bias from your written and spoken English?

There’s more to eliminating gender bias than simply switching the nouns and pronouns you use. But nouns and pronouns are good places to start. Here’s how you can transform your English:

  1. Avoid gender-biased nouns such as mankind, workman and fireman. Use neutral alternatives such as humanity, worker and fire fighter.
  2. If the gender of the person you are referring to is unknown, use the pronouns they, their and them not he, his and him.
  3. Never assume that the person you are addressing or your audience is male.
  4. Use parallel terms when referring to men and women. For example, use “husband” and “wife” not “man” and “wife”.
  5. Ensure that you don’t use stereotypes such as characterising men as leaders and women as their dependants.
  6. Avoid repeatedly characterising men as rational and women as emotional.
  7. Ensure that you avoid referring to men by their status but women by their physical appearance. Be particularly careful to avoid gratuitous physical descriptions.

doctorHow often have you seen articles featuring comments such as this one? The eminent professor attended the function with his tall, elegant and rather beautiful wife.” These days, it would be far more acceptable to say: The eminent professor attended the function with his wife, a highly regarded local physician.” The move to using gender-neutral language is especially challenging for the older generations. When you have always spoken and written in a certain way, changing your approach is almost like learning a foreign language. Most people of a certain age would not think twice about describing the person who delivers their mail as the postman. It wouldn’t cross their minds that this word perpetuates gender bias. But it does. An often-repeated English riddle perfectly sums up gender bias: “A father and son were in a car accident and the father was killed. The ambulance brought the son to the hospital. He needed immediate surgery. In the operating room, a doctor came in and looked at the little boy and explained that they couldn’t operate because the boy was their son. How is that possible?” There was a time when this riddle confused many people. These days most of us would immediately recognise that the hospital doctor must have been the child’s mother. The conundrum illustrates that even when the term for a professional person is gender-neutral, that person would have been presumed to be a man. It’s easy to see that were the term for a doctor masculine in nature, it could only serve to perpetuate gender bias.

Rapid but necessary change

All languages change over time. Usually, those changes are organic. They just happen but gradually. Gender bias is a different story. The way we all use the English language is being transformed quickly and deliberately. Things that have been said and written for generations are no longer acceptable. It has become increasingly apparent that gender equality cannot be achieved unless we can first evolve gender-neutral language. Language really does inform and entrench our attitudes.

Is machine translation gender bias?

gender biasTranslators and writers can quickly adapt as languages evolve. However, despite recent technological advances, machines still don’t possess similar abilities. Machine translation (MT) relies on the input of vast quantities of training data. This is particularly true of neural machine translation (NMT). As a result, any biases in the training data will be replicated in MT or NMT outputs. Google Translate’s solution to this problem is to render dual translations which provide both masculine and feminine forms of the targeted sections of text. This means that it is necessary to utilise a second step in the translation process to eliminate gender bias. In addition, it is important to note that gender is not the only bias that must be tackled if politically correct translations are to be achieved.  Many other biases must be taken into account. At this time, there is no universal MT solution available. There remains no substitute for human intervention.

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