ArticlesVolume 16, Number 3 (2007)

Subtly Sexist Language


Language can be a potent vehicle for subtle sexism.3 As lawyers, we understand the power of words. What we say and how we say it canĀ perpetuate gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men. In contrast, language also can be used as a constructive tool for reinforcing equality.

Sometimes, sexist language is blatant and universally shunned. Other times, it is more subtle and even socially acceptable. For instance, social science research has considered the use of male-gendered generics (the use of such words as he, man, chairman, or mankind to represent both women and men) rather than gender-neutral alternatives (such as she or he, human, chairperson, or humankind). As we will discuss, this research concludes that male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory, because their use is perceived as normative and therefore not unusual. In addition, those who use these words may not intend to cause harm. Complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction.