I am attending a writing reunion in Missouri with dear friend writers. We are a group of five women that have in common the passion for writing and apart from that are very diverse individuals.
Writers know language. Writers live on language. And, I had to notice how persistent are our unconscious biases and how they show up in ourpeculiar choices of words. Even for people skilled at words.
What is "sexist" language? I often ask to myself. If we look at language as the medium through which we conduct all relationships, we see clearly that it bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or not evolved.
Sexism affects the language we choose to use. Unfortunately, it is not enough to avoid using language which supports unfair or untrue attitudes to prevent sexism.
We tend to see sexism only when the specific choice of words suggests an inherent male dominance and superiority. What I would like us to face is that both women and men have the same trouble understanding -- or, as I see it, share a strong unwillingness to understand -- sexist language.
Let me explain what I mean. The most insidious expression to me is "you guys." This morning during our writing review session, one of us used it. As every single time I hear it, I got triggered at the sound of it. I always, and I am serious, every single time I hear the word guys used to address a group of people regardless of their gender, I react with the instinctive gesture of turning around pretending I am checking if there are men behind or around me. I get triggered even more when women use this expression to address each other.
I am probably sounding defensive or exaggerate in my reaction. I am well aware of it, as many roll their eyes up when I give them the speech and almost everyone responds asking what's the big deal.
In my view the male-based language is a strong indicator and a reinforcer of man privilege. A privilege that to be honest is supported by women too. The words we use reinforce current realities and, by using the expression guys we all support sexist reality. In this we are equals, as with no distinctions, both men and women use it without understanding the impact of it.
Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways -- which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. It makes a difference if I address a group of women with the word “guys”. Please do not tell me it's a generally accepted term used publicly by everyone in written and spoken language. Still do not believe me? Type the word guys on your research engine, what pictures appear? Are they men or women?
Do we want a truly inclusive language or one that just pretends? If you continue thinking that is not a big deal and I am exaggerating try using “you gal” with a group of men. Check their reaction. Are they indifferent about? How do they react?
Looking a bit deeper into the matter and into the challenges of eradicating a sexist language we cannot exclude that being labeled "guys" for women might make us feel included. Hence the tendency to be used widely also by women. This to me explains also the lack of women reaction to it and at times even the justification/defence of it.
Yet, this is only an apparent inclusion. If really included women wouldn't have to disappear into the word “guys."
I'm not saying that the use of the word "guys" is intentionally discriminatory. Actually I am claiming the opposite. I believe it is unconscious sexist. And because is unconscious and so widely accepted it has bigger consequences as it passes under the radar and it is rarely addressed.
In summary, the cumulative use of sexist language reinforces the message that men are the standard.
Now you know why I react that way every time I hear such a language. Language is the first step we can work on right now, if we're willing to bring more inclusion in the world.
How can this bias in the language be reduced? Start by changing your own language and if you cannot start by not being offended if I (or anyone else) makes you notice you are using sexist language.
Do you want to know if someone is sexist? Count how many times they say “guys”…it is oversimplifying and yet a good predictor.