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Sexism in Language and Speech

In an ideal world we could all get to the end of our sentence without being interrupted

and sexism wouldn't be embedded in everyday language.

This isn't an ideal world.



With any social movement where changes occur, the language sooner or later reflects the change.


It wasn't very long ago that it was standard practice to use masculine pronouns (he, him, his) to refer to people in general. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and I can still recall my high school English teacher putting loud red slashes through the word her when I used "his/her" to refer to the generic child in my admittedly cheeky essay entitled What’s Wrong With Parents Today? 


The teacher explained: “to avoid confusion, use his instead of his/her” and added most notably: "it’s not sexism, it’s accepted practice.” To avoid confusion??  Nothing was more baffling to me than having a woman in authority (yes, the teacher was female!) tell me it was okay to erase girls (or anyone) from the conversation. 

Just a woman's movement and a few decades later and it's perfectly acceptable to use his/her.


But we also want to proactively change sexist language patterns that still exist in order to effect change.


While culture shapes language, language also shapes culture (and that's what we're here to do!)


Notice with your children sexual discrimination embedded in ordinary English usage; language that excludes girls and women, or makes them invisible. Choose more inclusive words in everyday speech. Many of the gendered words tend to belittle women's contribution to society. And they have a profound effect on the minds of little girls and boys. Studies have shown that when people are given words like 'businessman' and 'fireman', the vast majority of them will later visualize, describe, or illustrate men doing these jobs.

Many years ago, only men were allowed to work in these professions. Women could not become firefighters or be CEOs. But using that language today just perpetuates a system that promotes men as those that are strong, intelligent and in charge. What then, does that say about women?

Actionables: Be conscious of semantic biases

  • Use gender neutral language when gender isn't relevant in a role 

For example, you could say policewoman if the officer is a woman but why not simply say "police officer"? Other examples include: flight attendant, firefighter, chair (or chairperson), and actor.

  • Go for gender-neutral alternatives instead of those words that incorporate the word 'man'. 

For man-made, use artificial or synthetic

For mankind, use humankind

For manpower, use workforce

  • Gendered jobs are on the decline, but Stereotypes remain: Change up your word and pronoun pairings

Nurse/her, doctor/his, teacher/her, financial analyst/his

  • Ever notice the tendency for the male version to come first in binomials such as 'men and women', 'brothers and sisters', 'boys and girls', or 'Mr and Mrs'?  Switch it up!


Take Action




Ladies, it's not all in your head. It's a fact: decades of research show women are disproportionately interrupted by both men and by women but women rarely interrupt men. I know what you're thinking: women talk more than men. Nope! Men are actually the more talkative gender.

And ladies of the general population, you're not alone. Even women at the tippy top -- Supreme Court justices  -- are three times more likely to suffer interruptions than their male colleagues. Think of those implications for a quick minute: oral arguments are the primary way of affecting case outcomes, so systematic disruption of the female justices’ ability to fully participate limits their substantive power on the court. If women on the Supreme Court have less say in making/changing/upholding laws, that trickles down to the average woman and their (our) daughters.

Interrupting is a way of asserting social dominance. We live in a society that accepts male dominance so it's no surprise that men interrupt far more than women. Now you might be tempted to conclude that all men are dicks. I get it. But to be fair, your interruptor has been exposed to gendered linguistic patterns since birth. And he doesn't live with the cultural mandate of feminine politeness either.


Boys are lauded for being assertive while girls are shamed for being "aggressive"for the same behavior. In school, boys are encouraged to take more air time. Boys come to trust their voices and girls to doubt theirs. This creates a vicious cycle. If girls grow up to doubt their voices, they will be more likely to speak softly and with more hesitation making it easier for them to be interrupted by men who believe in their right to be heard and don't hesitate to speak over others.


Interrupting can seem like one small behavior -- a minor indignity -- but it's constancy has huge, long term consequences for girls' self-esteem. Being interrupted sends the message that what you have to say is unimportant. If girls lose a sense of their own credibility, then the world loses out on potential future leaders, entrepreneurs, doctors, and trendsetters.


To lose the ideas of half the population is a loss for everyone. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this is a public health crisis. As with all sexism and racism, everyone loses.


Speech -Manterrupting


Mansplaining is just another form of silencing, another source of subtle subjugation girls and women live with.


Merriam Webster puts it like this: "Mansplaining is....what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to do"

It all started with Rebecca Solnit's 2008 critique of male arrogance called "Men Explain Things To Me." Solnit wrote the essay after a man at a party interrupted her to explain her book to her, not knowing she was the author. Solnit didn't coin the term mansplain -- a commenter on the website LiveJournal did. It caught on was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. 


Not all men mansplain, but all women know what it feels like to be mansplained. That is to say, women know what it is to be bullied out of their own perceptions and interpretations; to not be considered credible; to be treated as less knowledgeable than they are, even when they know more about a particular topic than the man confronting them with his overconfidence and cluelessness.


Speech -Mansplaining

Again, men have absorbed the environments they grew up in and the interactions they've witnessed. To help you know if you're mansplaining, Kim Goodwin created  this chart, originally a tweet that went viral. You can read all about it and get more info on mansplaining here: Mansplaining, explained in one simple chart

Explanation of Mansplaining
Take Action


1) Set Expectations: show your daughters how it's done by saying, "I am going to explain the rules of this game and then I'll take questions but please don't interrupt."  Or if someone interrupts your child, you might say, "Let's allow her to finish and then you can talk". Imagine your daughter growing up and setting a similar tone in a meeting or presentation at work (-:


2) Interrupt right back: If you're telling a story at dinner and you get interrupted, interrupt right back saying: "Good question, I'll respond when I'm done with the story" or "When I'm done giving my perspective, I'd love to hear yours" or simply "LET ME FINISH!"


3) Jump in: Don't raise your hand or wait for exactly the right time to speak. The longer females justices serve on the Supreme Court, the more they learn to just jump in – as their male colleagues do -- rather than wait for the floor to be given to them. 

3) Avoid Hedging: Women tend to add extra words, or "softeners" into their sentences far more than men do. Softeners are a linguistic tool to soften the tone of your content or to show politeness when you’re speaking (see work by well-known sociologist in linguistics Jennifer Coates). Softeners leave more space for interruptions and they project less confidence. Instead of saying "I think", use "I know". Instead of "it might", use "it will". Instead of "I'm not sure, but I think I disagree" say "I disagree"

Easier said than done:


  • These strategies are viewed as more aggressive or rude when women employ them than when men do. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC, says it is a trade-off women sometimes have to make.

  • Girls are conditioned to be kind and collaborative while we value rivalry and largess in boys. Talking for girls is more cooperative while for boys it's competitive.

  • Girls also learn they should take up less space than boys, and talking is the verbal analogue to taking up physical space.

  • Girls grow up being interrupted so they learn their voice counts less. This makes it difficult to feel confident in their message.

  • People with higher status are given more air time. In hetero/cisnormative people’s interactions, if no other status markers supercede it, maleness is often assigned a naturally higher status and therefore more talking time.​


Feminist Parenting
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