Breaking Down Barriers

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How Language Shapes Our Perception of Gender

Irene Giovanetti (she/they) – community psychologist – Associazione Culturale Communia

Ever thought about how language isn’t just a tool for communication? It is also a tool on how to see the world. Picture this: language and thought are like dance partners, each influencing the other. On one hand, the way we think influences the language we use. On the other hand, metaphorically language could be considered as the architect of our thoughts: just as your dance moves are limited by your physical abilities, language sets the stage for what we can think.

But what are the connections between language and gender?

Back in 1973, Bem and Bem found that using many masculine words in job advertisements actually made women less interested in applying for non-traditional jobs. Later studies by Wasserman and Weseley (2009) and Prewitt-Freilino (2012) suggest that using languages that emphasize gender, like Italian where every noun is either male or female, appears to strengthen unfriendly attitudes toward gender equality. It is clear from these studies that language has an impact in shaping perceptions, attitudes and behaviors towards gender roles and equality.

But wait, there’s more to this linguistic puzzle. Enter non-binary individuals, challenging the male-female binary. The term “non-binary” serves as an umbrella for all the people whose gender identity does not fully align with the categories of male or female. However, in many countries in Europe the law does not recognize the possibility of a gender other than male or female, and many European languages do not contemplate a neutral gender. A study by Scandurra et al (2019) highlights that non-binary individuals are subject to misunderstandings about their lived identity, increased pressure to conform to gender roles, stress from a less traditional coming-out experience, and misunderstandings and stigma even within the LGBTQIA+ community.

Let’s swing back to the power of language.

The sociolinguistic Gheno (2022) emphasizes the dual function of language: on one hand, to educate and raise awareness, and on the other, to recognize, represent, and give visibility to marginalized minority groups. Baiocco (2023) adds another layer to this understanding, asserting that the use of neutral pronouns (such as the English “singular they”(1) ) can promote the well-being of non-binary individuals and foster positive emotions toward their non-binary gender, such as joy and pride.

Easy? Not really. Try to talk about someone for a few minutes without using gender terms: it’s very difficult! We live in a male-centered and gender-binary world, and the language we have at our disposal is influenced by this. But putting some effort in trying to develop this new habit is worthwhile. Let me share a personal note on the emotional impact that a little attention to the words we use can have. As a queer individual, I’ve experienced firsthand the power of language in creating safe spaces. When I enter a space where people, even if they are cisgender (2), state their pronouns, I feel a sense of safety and inclusion, and I know that I am in a place where I don’t have to worry about expressing myself freely. It’s a simple act, but it goes a long way in fostering understanding and acceptance.

A few practical tips:

  1. Avoid gendered terms when talking to an audience or about someone who is non-binary, for example you can say:
    – “people” instead of “women and men”
    – “everyone” or “folks” instead of “ladies and gentlemen”
    – “spouse” instead of “wife” or “husband”, and “partner” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
  2.  If you are not sure about which pronouns to use when talking to someone, don’t panic! You can ask instead of trying to assume: it will be appreciated. You can also use a gender neutral language and listen to the person to see which pronouns they use to talk about themselves.
  3. If you can, normalize stating your pronouns. For example, you can add your pronouns at the end of your email signature or on your social media. In this way, people who are not cisgender (2) will feel safer in specifying their pronouns too.
  4. Some languages are more binary than others, but in all languages experiments are in progress around strategies to speak in a more gender neutral way. For example, in Italian you can use “u” or “ə” at the end of a gendered word, in Spanish you can use the suffix “e”. Try to google “how to speak in a gender neutral way in Italian/Spanish/Dutch (…)”
  5. Stay informed around LGBTQIA+ and gender equality topics and use language to explain what you know to others when you have the occasion to.

 

 

I am far from saying that using different words will solve all social problems.

Achieving complex social change necessitates a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond the confines of linguistic adjustments: it requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses legal reforms, policy changes, and societal shifts. Within this process, language is not the sole ingredient in the fight for queer liberation and gender equality, still it is a powerful tool in this endeavor, influencing cultural norms and societal expectations.

In closing, this exploration into the intricate relationship between language, gender, and non-binary identities is a call to action. Just as language shapes our perceptions, we have the power to shape language. Let’s actively choose words that celebrate diversity, foster understanding, and build bridges of acceptance.

 

Notes

  1. singular they = in English, it is possible to use the pronoun “they” to talk about a person in a gender neutral way. For example: “Alex loves hiking, so I asked them to join our trip this weekend”. Differently from other languages that are experimenting with new ways of using gender neutral pronouns, the “singular they” is not a new rule in English grammar, and it is used when the gender of the person is unknown. For example: “An employee will not do the job properly if they do not have the right training”.
  2. cisgender = someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned at birth. Example: someone with a female body identifying as a woman or someone with a masculine body identifying as a man. The opposite of “cisgender” is “transgender”.Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.
References
Baiocco, R., Rosati, F., & Pistella, J. (2023). Italian proposal for non-binary and inclusive language: The schwa as a non-gender–specific ending. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 1-6.
Bem, Sandra L. / Bem, Daryl J. (1973), “Does Sex-Biased Job Advertising ‘Aid and Abet’ Sex Discrimination?”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology 3.1: 6-18
Gheno, V. (2022). Femminili singolari+: Il femminismo è nelle parole. effequ.
Prewitt-Freilino, J. L., Caswell, T. A., & Laakso, E. K. (2012). The gendering of language: A comparison of gender equality in countries with gendered, natural gender, and genderless languages. Sex roles, 66(3), 268-281.
Scandurra, C., Mezza, F., Maldonato, N. M., Bottone, M., Bochicchio, V., Valerio, P., & Vitelli, R. (2019). Health of non-binary and genderqueer people: A systematic review. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1453.
Wasserman, B. D., & Weseley, A. J. (2009). ¿ Qué? Quoi? Do languages with grammatical gender promote sexist attitudes?. Sex Roles, 61(9-10), 634-643.

 

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

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