The Unconscious Effect of Sexist Language

by Nov 4, 2017

Language is a tool which can be used for good or evil


In a time when women continue to be treated differently due to gender, it is important that we start to identify the roots of sexist language. 

Sexism manifests itself in a myriad of ways. It affects men, women and androgynous people alike. Sometimes sexism is more blatant; the notion that the colour pink is for girls; the belief that men don’t cry; the idea that women don’t like football. However it is often far more subtle and, in many cases, unconscious. This is because it is embedded in our language.

When we think of sexism embedded in language, our thoughts often jump to gendered languages with masculine and feminine nouns, such as French and Spanish. It is easy to overlook English, with its gender-neutral pronouns and regular, non-gendered nouns. However it is not just the structure of languages that makes it sexist, but the ways it is used. It is the turns of phrase, the cultural norms, the sexist idioms that prevail in our society.

Sexist language


Here are some common examples of sexist language:

The way we talk to children

How often have you heard someone say ‘what a pretty girl’, or ‘aren’t you a big, strong boy’? On the flip side, how many times have you heard someone ask a girl which sports she is playing, or offering a boy to sit and do some colouring? This is setting us up to believe that the female lot in life is based on her looks, while strength is promoted as a masculine feature. Girls are taught that they should sit nicely and quietly, while boys are rewarded for being energetic.

Not only does this lead women to struggle with their body image and men to hide their emotions, but it can also lead to problems in the office. When there is a more difficult project, or a tough conversation to be had, it is often assumed that a woman wouldn’t be up for the task. It can impact their careers.  Women are less likely to put themselves forward because they feel less welcome to get involved.

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Diminishing a woman with unconsciously sexist language

Catcalling is an unpleasant experience. In general, society agrees that it is rude, degrading and sometimes threatening. However most people overlook the effect that the more ‘friendly’ terms can have. As a young woman, it is common to be spoken down to or called names. Sometimes they are based on looks, such as being called ‘beautiful’ or ‘gorgeous’, or being asked to smile. Other times they are just general diminutives, such as ‘love’, ‘darling’ or ‘doll’. It is not always as obvious why this is harmful and many people would try to suggest that it is endearing or affectionate.

The problem is that these terms do not promote or suggest equality in any way. People do not call towering men ‘doll’. They treat them with respect. These diminutives place the women as being of lower standing and more fragile. They insinuate that a woman would not understand the complex matters the man is working on. When this gets moved into the office, it enforces a clear hierarchy in which the man is more respectable. It makes the man seem more trustworthy to handle a case.

Run like a girl

Sexist language is incredibly prevalent in turns of phrase which make their ways even into the workplace. ‘Run like a girl’, ‘man-up’, ‘don’t be such a girl’, ‘the right man for the job’, are all terms that we are accustomed to hearing. They are all weighted with significant sexism. Just from these examples we are able to see that women are put down by referring to them as ‘girls’. This suggests they are small, young and innocent. In contrast, men are linked with ideas of strength and suitability. They are generally only referred to as boys to suggest a playful aspect; ‘boys will be boys’, ‘playboy’, ‘old boys’ club’.

It might seem like these are harmless idioms and phrases but they again reinforce the idea that girls are weak and worthless.  They make it seem like having an attribute that could be seen to belong to women is negative. All serve to stop women reaching their potential. This pushes men to ignore aspects of their personality which could make them more well-rounded. It also further perpetuates the cycle of keeping women out of the loop, because of the misguided belief that they don’t belong or couldn’t keep up.

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Language is a tool

We usually think of language as being enabling. They allow us to express ourselves, to converse and communicate. But we need to be careful about what we are communicating as languages can also create barriers. Sexist language is often unconscious but it still has a hugely detrimental effect on society. It constantly reinforces negative stereotypes and props up the idea that men and women are naturally different, and should stay that way. Language is a powerful tool and we need to make sure that we are using it in the right way.


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Emma Frazer Editor
Emma Frazer is a feminist, footballer and Latin America aficionado. She works as a freelancer in Barcelona. Emma is the social media manager and editor for 3Plus International.

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