There go the girls

Until they were officially abolished last month, I had never heard of the ‘walk-on girls’ who accompanied professional darts players onstage at tournaments. Nor did I know that Formula 1 featured ‘grid girls’ (who have also been axed), that cycling has ‘podium girls’, and that boxing employs ‘ring card girls’ to do the vital job (according to promoter Eddie Hearn) of ‘letting people know what round is coming up’. The issue which has suddenly made these ‘girls’ controversial is not primarily about language (it’s more about broadcasters’ #metoo-fuelled unease with overt displays of sexism). But it does, arguably, have a linguistic dimension.

In 2013 the darts blogger Rich Nank devoted a post to what he called ‘the walk-on girls phenomenon’, in which he defended this invented tradition (born in Blackpool in 1994) against the charge of sexism. Queen_Mum_900As he saw it, the introduction of ‘walking on’ marked a softening of the traditional view that darts was strictly for the working man, and there was no place in the sport for women (a somewhat unconvincing argument, given that women had been playing darts competitively since the late 1950s). The walk-on girls made good money, they were popular with fans of both sexes, and some of them had become as famous as the players. Why, they were practically feminist role models! But there was one thing about them that even Mr Nank found slightly dodgy:

I’ve never been comfortable with calling them ‘girls’ mainly because they are grown women, but maybe that’s just me.

Actually, Rich, it’s not just you. Well, it might be just you if we’re talking about darts (along with F1, cycling, boxing, and possibly other sports too niche to have surfaced in recent media reports—are there, perhaps, ‘lawn girls’ in croquet? ‘Octagon girls’ in cage fighting?) But in the wider world this ‘girls’ thing has been a bone of contention for at least the last 45 years. And recently the debate has become more polarised.

In 2011, for instance, a contributor to Radio Times complained about the media’s relentless use of the Ernie K Doe track ‘Here Come the Girls’ (along with the Sugababes cover ‘Girls’):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever women unite in television observational documentaries or entertainment shows to achieve a purpose, their steps will be dogged by Here Come the Girls… a suppurating bubo of a song, made famous by a series of witless television adverts for Boots.

Does your programme feature more than one woman doing something positive? Then play Here Come the Girls on the soundtrack as lazy shorthand aimed at pin-brains who can’t cope with the fact that women can be serious and grown-up and have purpose and enthusiasms. Or can be called “women”.

This comment references the classic feminist argument against calling adult women ‘girls’: that it belittles, demeans and insults them by reducing them to the status of children. Some feminists will tell you that since ‘girl’ means ‘female child’, it should be reserved exclusively for people under the age of 16 (or 15, or 18–whenever the writer thinks childhood ends). But the reason I’m posting on this subject is because (with apologies to regular readers who’ve heard this line before) I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

If it were really that simple, it would be hard to explain why ‘girls’ is favoured over ‘women’ in contexts like those Boots adverts, where the intention clearly wasn’t to demean women (how would insulting the customer help to shift the product?) but on the contrary, to present them as strong, capable and ‘empowered’. Boots was actually trading on the development which has reignited this long-running controversy: in recent decades ‘girl’, once a reliable indicator of unreconstructed male chauvinism, has come to be associated with a certain kind of feminism.

This may have begun with the Riot Grrrl movement, with its slogan ‘girls to the front’. But while that was very much a young women’s thing, today’s ‘girls’ can be of any age. Think of Oprah’s use of ‘you go, girl!’ and Beyoncé’s ‘who run the world? Girls!’ Think of the recent rash of female-authored bestsellers with ‘girl’ in their titles (like Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train), or TV series like Lena Dunham’s Girls (in which the characters are young, but no longer children) and ITV’s current Kay Mellor drama Girlfriends (whose protagonists are considerably older). These are not cases of men patronising women: the new ‘girl’-users are women, and often they are self-identified feminists. So what are they doing with ‘girl’? Or, to put it another way, what is ‘girl’ doing for them that ‘woman’ can’t?

To answer that question we will need to let go of the idea that ‘girl’ is automatically demeaning because it infantilises women. Some uses of ‘girl’ may do that, and many uses of ‘girl’ are demeaning whether or not they do it (a point I’ll elaborate on later). But as a general explanation of how ‘girl’ works, the ‘it treats adult women as children’ argument is flawed and always has been, because it’s based on an overly literal account of what and how words mean.

Suggesting that ‘girl’ should only be used in reference to actual children is a bit like suggesting that ‘cold fish’ and ‘fish out of water’ should only be used in reference to actual fish. It misses the point that these are metaphors, figures of speech that work by transferring some of the qualities of one thing (a girl, or a fish) to another thing (a woman, or a human). The question is what aspects of the meaning of ‘girl’ are being transferred when the word is used in reference to adult women. The answer may be different in different contexts, and that may help to explain why some uses of ‘girl’ are perceived as demeaning, while others are positively embraced by women themselves.

One element of the context that can affect the meaning of a linguistic form is related to that hardy perennial of sociolinguistics, the distinction between status and solidarity. As I explained in a previous post, it’s not uncommon for the same linguistic form to communicate a different meaning depending on whether it’s being used ‘vertically’, to mark the speakers’ relative positions in a status hierarchy, or ‘horizontally’, as a mark of solidarity, intimacy or mutual respect between equals. For instance, if two people are in an intimate relationship, each may address the other with endearment terms like ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’, and in that context the terms are unobjectionable; but it’s another story when the same words are used non-reciprocally, by men harassing female strangers in the street, or by a boss to a female underling who is obliged to call him ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Smith’. The first usage says ‘we love each other’; the second says ‘I have power over you’.

‘Girl’ can be used in both ways. British readers may remember the outcry last year after the Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale referred to his female office staff as ‘girls’ during an interview on national radio. This was a good example of the vertical, non-reciprocal usage: the staff members in question, all women of mature years, could hardly refer to Sir Roger as ‘the boy we work for’ (just as he wouldn’t feel able to refer to his own boss, prime minister Theresa May, as ‘the girl in number 10’). Another, notorious historical example is the way white Americans in the era of racial segregation (and before that, slavery) addressed African Americans as ‘girl’ and ‘boy’. This racist convention underlined the subordinate status of Black people, and was accordingly resented by them. But that hasn’t stopped African American women from adopting ‘girl’ as a solidary term among themselves. When it’s used horizontally it communicates something different—it’s about female bonding and mutual support.

For solidary purposes, ‘girl’ may seem preferable to ‘woman’ because it’s warmer and more intimate. It works in the same way as endearment terms, or the diminutives we often use as nicknames for the people we’re close to: between intimates, a name that metaphorically makes you ‘smaller’ is a mark of affection. But when it comes from someone with socially-sanctioned power over you, the same metaphor becomes a putdown, a reminder that you are seen as a lesser being.

If the horizontal use of ‘girl’ conveys warmth, closeness and female solidarity, that might explain why ‘girlfriend’ is so often preferred to the more distant-sounding ‘woman friend’. But the closeness/distance contrast doesn’t seem so relevant to cases like The Girl On The Train, or the various bits of mainstream media output which have been soundtracked with ‘Here Come the Girls’. In those cases we might think that ‘girl’ is preferred to ‘woman’ for other reasons–reasons which feminists might find more problematic.

One obvious difference between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ is that ‘girl’ emphasises the quality of youthfulness and ‘woman’ the quality of maturity. In societies which are both sexist and ageist, however, maturity isn’t always seen as positive. So, when adult women refer to themselves and one another as ‘girls’, this may function as a form of avoidance, an attempt to block the less desirable associations of ‘woman’. A ‘girl’ is not, for instance, staid, careworn, ‘mumsy’, a domestic tyrant or a grim old battleaxe. She sounds less threatening than a ‘woman’, and more attractive—not only because of her imagined youthful looks, but also because of her supposed carefree attitude and her implied sexual availability. (It’s not a coincidence that we have walk-on, grid, podium and ring card ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’: women whose job is to project sexual availability are almost invariably referred to as ‘girls’.) Embracing ‘girl’, in short, is one way of dealing with the social fact that women’s value in modern western cultures is reduced rather than enhanced by age and experience.

Though ageism does not affect men in exactly the same way (getting older is not thought to render men sexually undesirable and therefore worthless), there are contexts where terms connoting youthfulness or juvenility are used by/about men as well as women, and often for similar reasons. For instance, we have paired expressions like ‘boys’/girls’ night out’, where the most relevant association of the juvenile term is with being carefree—participants are ‘boys/girls’ rather than ‘men/women’ because they’re putting aside adult responsibilities to concentrate on the pursuit of pleasure. (In that context, as the Radio Times writer pointed out, ‘Here Come the Girls’ has an equally clichéd male equivalent, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’.) ‘Boys’ can also have the same solidary function as ‘girls’: both terms are frequently deployed as expressions of camaraderie among same-sex workmates or members of the same sports team.

‘Girl’ is a more complicated word than it might seem. A blanket prohibition on using it to refer to anyone older than 15 would be a very blunt instrument, capturing not only the cases which are offensive, but also many which are innocuous, or even positive. Broadly speaking, ‘girl’ is suspect when it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  1. it is used non-reciprocally by a more powerful person to or about someone less powerful;
  2. a reference to an equivalent male person would not contain a word suggesting juvenility, e.g. ‘boy’ or ‘lad’;
  3. subservience and/or sexual availability are important elements of the meaning it is being used to convey.

It’s not surprising that the ‘girl’ terms which inspired this post—‘walk-on girl’, ‘grid girl’, ‘podium girl’, ‘ring card girl’—meet all these criteria: they are labels for women fulfilling a function whose very existence would be inconceivable without sexism. But if ‘girl’ doesn’t tick any of these boxes then I don’t think feminists should have a problem with it. We don’t do ourselves any favours by policing language for no good reason.



Call the fishwife: thoughts on sex, class and swearing

Do men find women who swear unattractive? This old chestnut of a question recently popped up on social media after it was posed by Britain’s leading litter supplier, the Metro.  On my own timeline, by far the commonest answer was ‘who gives a fuck?’ But outside the feminist bubble, there was no shortage of young men expressing more conventional opinions.  Men like Hugh, 25, who told the Metro:

I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears. I feel it makes them seem more masculine… I’m more used to men swearing more.

If you asked 100 randomly-selected English speakers which sex swears more, the great majority would probably say ‘men’. For most of the last 100 years that was also what linguists thought. Otto Jespersen commented in 1922 on women’s ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Half a century later Robin Lakoff suggested that the shrinking was not instinctive, but rather the result of social pressure. Women who expressed themselves forcefully were liable to be criticised for their ‘unladylike’ behaviour; among other things, this meant that they avoided ‘strong expletives’, and were more likely than men to use inoffensive substitutes like ‘fudge’.

But there was not much hard evidence to back up these claims. When researchers began to look more closely, they also began to suspect that, like many beliefs about the speech of men and women, this one had more to do with prescriptive gender norms than with the facts about our actual linguistic behaviour.

In 2005 the corpus linguist Tony McEnery published Swearing in English, a book whose first section, ‘How Brits Swear’, contains a systematic analysis of the use of swear words in the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC)—a sample of 10 million words transcribed from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of the sample consists of speech recorded at meetings or from radio discussions; the rest is informal conversation. Male and female speakers are represented in approximately equal numbers, and the corpus also includes speakers from a range of age groups and socioeconomic categories. This allowed McEnery to see how the frequency of swearing was affected by age, sex and social class.

So, what did he find? Well, age made a difference, along the lines you’d probably expect. The most prolific swearers were people under 25; after that age there was a steady decline. Class also had an influence, but it wasn’t a straightforward case of ‘the lower the class, the more people swear’. The highest frequencies were indeed found in the lowest socioeconomic strata, but the next most frequent swearers were the highest-status group, the professional middle class. (The BNC probably doesn’t include many representatives of the aristocracy, but they’ve never been shy about swearing either: some members of the Royal Family, like Prince Philip and Princess Anne, are famous for it.) In Britain it’s the people in the middle who swear the least.

What about sex? I’ve left it until last because unlike age and class, it turned out to have no effect on the overall frequency of swearing. If all types of swearing and all swear words were considered, there was no significant difference between men and women.

But if it isn’t true that men swear more, why do so many people insist that swearing is ‘unfeminine’? Hugh, 25, for instance, finds women who swear unattractive because ‘it makes them seem more masculine’. What’s the connection between swearing and masculinity?

One answer might be that we understand swearing as a form of aggression—a trait we think of as masculine, and find less acceptable in women. Recently, a book called Swearing is Good For You has popularised the theory that swearing evolved as a kind of safety valve, a way of ventilating negative emotions that stopped short of physical assault. I’m unconvinced by this argument. For one thing, swearing and physical violence often go together (the former may also precipitate the latter). But more importantly, a lot of swearing isn’t motivated by aggression. It’s common among friends (and particularly among same-sex friends) for the same reasons banter and gossip are common among friends: because the communal breaking of a social taboo (whether it’s gossiping about others’ business or uttering words you’re not supposed to say in public) is a symbol of intimacy and mutual trust.

Is it men who do the ‘aggressive’ swearing while women prefer the ‘solidary’ kind? Well, no, not really: the evidence shows that both sexes do both kinds. It may not match our preconceptions, but the historical record provides abundant evidence of female verbal aggression, very often directed against other women (and sometimes accompanied by physical violence).

The social historian Jonathan Healey describes an incident in Winchester in 1544, when two women started fighting in the street. According to witnesses, the first woman’s daughter came out of her house and subjected her mother’s adversary to a tirade of verbal abuse:

thow meseld faced [‘measle-faced’] hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye thee utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face.

Another historian, Laura Gowing, cites a case from 1590, in which one London woman was heard to tell another,

thou art a whore an arrant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche thou goest sawghting up and downe the towne after knaves and art such a whott tayled whore that neither one nor two nor ten nor twenty knaves will scarce serve thee.

This wasn’t just friendly joshing: the reason there’s a record of these altercations is that the parties ended up in court. We know from court documents that such aggressive exchanges between women were not rare.

Later on, though, the belief took hold that respectable women were incapable of swearing. In the early 1920s a Littlehampton woman named Edith Swan sent a large number of anonymous letters to her neighbours which were full of obscenities like ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt’. The first time she was prosecuted, the judge more or less directed the jury to acquit her because he could not believe that a woman of her appearance and demeanour would ever have used such indecent language. The person who got the blame was a less outwardly respectable woman, Rose Gooding, who was twice found guilty of libel before forensic evidence conclusively proved that Edith Swan was the author of all the letters.

This story points to another connection between swearing and masculinity. Recall Hugh’s assertion that ‘I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears’. The idea that swearing is ‘vulgar’ (in the modern sense of ‘impolite’ or ‘unrefined’) seems obvious enough, but etymologically ‘vulgar’ means ‘of the common people’—it has connotations of low social status. A similar concern was evident in the comments made by another man who was quoted in the Metro.  Jodel, 23, explained that he doesn’t swear himself, and doesn’t like anyone—male or female—swearing in his presence. However, he ‘doesn’t find it appealing when girls speak in certain dialects, for example, a colloquial regional slang’.

What these comments show is that forms of language which are associated with working class speakers (including swearing, street slang and regional dialect), are also perceived as ‘masculine’. A ‘feminine’ woman keeps it classy: she doesn’t soil her mouth, or men’s ears, with ‘vulgar’, low-status and nonstandard speech.

This mapping from class to gender (working class = masculine, middle class = feminine)  doesn’t only work for language, as you’ll know if you ever watched the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, in which young working class women were sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ‘ladies’. ‘Unfeminine’ was a word their teachers used repeatedly to describe every aspect of their self-presentation, from their speech to their deportment to their fashion choices. This wasn’t because they looked or acted like men: it was just that their understanding of what a woman should look or act like was more Bet Lynch than Elizabeth II. And that doesn’t match our cultural template for ‘proper’ femininity, which is based on the upper- or middle-class ‘lady’.

By contrast, our template for ‘proper’ masculinity is not the effete upper-class gentleman, it’s the set of working-class male archetypes parodied by the Village People—the cowboy, the construction worker, the sailor. These ‘real men’ are tough, they don’t mind their manners (or their grammar) and they swear like the proverbial troopers. That’s why, when Donald Trump talks about ‘shithole countries’ and ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, his supporters don’t find it objectionable: like his baseball cap and his junk food diet, it’s seen as evidence that this over-privileged millionaire is really a man of the people. Female populist politicians have to be more careful, as Sarah Palin discovered in 2016 when she told an audience of Trump supporters that their candidate would ‘kick ISIS’s ass’–and was immediately criticised for her ‘profanity’.

Though the BNC data show women and men swearing with equal frequency, Tony McEnery (like Robin Lakoff) thinks the gendered double standard does have an effect, in that it leads women to avoid the ‘strongest’ words. His statistical analysis revealed that while both sexes had the same basic vocabulary, men were significantly more likely than women to say ‘fuck/fucking/fucker’, ‘jesus’ and ‘cunt’; women, by contrast, were significantly more likely than men to say ‘god’, ‘bloody’, ‘hell’, ‘shit’, ‘arsed’, ‘pig’, ‘piss/pissy’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bitch’. He also noted that some words were more frequently used to or about one sex than the other. For instance (and I’m guessing this won’t surprise you), it was women who got called ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, while it was men who got called ‘wanker’ and ‘gay’. It was also men who were most often addressed or referred to as ‘cunts’. The word was sometimes applied to women, but its commonest use was from one man to another.

In more recent research with newly-collected data, McEnery has found that women no longer lag behind men in the frequency with which they use ‘fuck’. But in any case, the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘mild’ swearing is one that will bear closer examination. Can offensiveness be treated as a constant, an inherent property of individual words, or does it vary in different contexts and social groups?

The offensiveness ranking McEnery used, originally produced for the British Board of Film Classification, is a typical example of what you get if you give people a list of offensive words and ask them to rate them on a five-point scale. It classifies ‘cunt’ and ‘motherfucker’ as ‘very strong’, ‘fuck’ as ‘strong’, ‘whore’—along with ‘bastard’ and ‘wanker’—as ‘moderate’, ‘arse’ and ‘bitch’ as ‘mild’, and ‘bloody’, ‘crap’ and ‘damn’ as ‘very mild’. Other surveys of this type have produced similar results, suggesting a high degree of consensus among English-speakers on the relative strength of various words. But these surveys ask people to judge words in isolation, whereas in real life our judgments of offensiveness are affected by the specifics of the situation. It won’t be irrelevant who is using a word to whom, or what message they are using it to communicate.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the 16th century cases in which one woman called another a ‘whore’. According to the BBFC ranking, this would count as a ‘moderate’ insult rather than a ‘strong’ one. But in context there was nothing moderate about it. Historically, calling a woman unchaste was the way you impugned her honour: it was an attack on her reputation which could have serious social consequences. ‘Whore’ and its synonyms were therefore regarded by women as extremely offensive and provocative words. In some communities they still are. One study conducted with working class women in Salford in the 1990s found that they viewed ‘slag’ as the most serious insult, closely followed by ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’.

That wasn’t because they shied away from ‘strong expletives’. According to the researcher Susan Hughes, these were women who swore habitually and unapologetically: ‘their general conversation is peppered’, she reported, ‘with fuck, twat, bastard, and so on’. When she asked about the reasons for this, the women told her it was just ‘part of our way of talking’. They didn’t see it as anything special, and that’s consistent with the historical evidence that swearing has always been part of working class women’s linguistic repertoire. (Nor should we assume that it was totally absent from the repertoire of middle class women: while they may have avoided swearing in public, there is no reason to think they never swore among themselves.)

Yet it seems to be virtually an article of faith that women today swear more than previous generations. For those commentators who defend women’s right to swear (including both the writer of the Metro article and the author of Swearing is Good For You), this supposed change is a sign of progress—it shows how far women have come in the past half-century. Commentators who are critical of women swearing agree that it’s a sign of changing times, but they don’t think the change is for the better. Some argue that modern ideas of sex-equality have forced women to adopt ‘masculine’ behaviour in order to compete with or be accepted by men. Others suggest that women are doing it to shock, or because feminists have convinced them that it’s cool to be unfeminine and vulgar.

These arguments are (ironically) not new. Since the late 19th century, every increase in young women’s public visibility and independence has prompted comments on their alleged new enthusiasm for swearing (as well as for slang, smoking, drinking, ‘mannish’ clothes and ‘rowdy’ behaviour). The same observations were made about the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, the ‘munitionettes’ who worked in munitions factories during World War I, and the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s. And there were similar debates on whether these women’s prolific swearing symbolised a new era of female freedom, or whether it was simply vulgar, unfeminine and immoral.

cropped-billingsgate-eloquence-by-james-gillray-published-by-hannah-humphrey-26-may-1795-national-portrait-gallery1.jpgWhether her behaviour is judged positively or negatively, the woman who swears is always seen as behaving like a man: it’s assumed, in other words, that there is no authentically female tradition of swearing. But in that case, how do we understand the 16th century women yelling insults like ‘measle-faced whore’, or the 20th century Salford women whose conversation was ‘peppered with fuck, twat and bastard’? What do we say about the fishwives pictured in this post, whose swearing was so legendary, their occupational title acquired the secondary sense of ‘foul-mouthed woman’? These women weren’t competing with men, nor rebelling against middle-class norms of femininity (which, as Susan Hughes says in her discussion of the Salford women, were completely irrelevant to their lives). They were doing their own thing, and in the communities they belonged to it was a thing women had done for generations.

Asking whether women should swear is a bit like asking whether women should have children out of wedlock, or weigh more than seven stone: it’s a question designed for no other purpose than to allow people to air their prejudices. And those prejudices are, in most cases, socially selective. If a single mother on benefits peppers her discourse with ‘fuck, twat and bastard’, people say she’s ignorant, unable to express herself in any other way.  If a stand-up comedian who went to public school uses the same words in his act, people say it’s edgy and subversive. Men like the Metro’s Hugh take their selective prejudices into their personal relationships, reserving the right to swear themselves while saying it’s a turn-off when women do it.

It’s depressing to witness 25-year old men recycling opinions in 2018 that were already clichés in 1918. My message to them is simple: ‘yes, women swear. They always have and they always will. Get over it. Move on’.

The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.




2017: the year in language and feminism

Back in 2015, in this blog’s first end-of-year round-up, I noted that the year had started inauspiciously, with Time magazine putting ‘feminism’ on its list of annoying words that deserved to be banned.  The label was overused, they said; celebrities in particular were guilty of ‘throwing it around like ticker-tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade’.

To say that the mood has changed since then would be an understatement. No-one seemed surprised when a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, named ‘feminism’ as its Word of the Year. ‘Feminism’, the announcement explained, was one of the most looked-up words of 2017, and spikes in the number of look-ups coincided with important news stories, from the anti-Trump women’s marches in January to the #metoo campaign this autumn. As for Time, its current cover features ‘the silence breakers’–a group of women, feminists, and in some cases celebrities, who spoke out about sexual harassment and who have collectively been chosen as the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017.

But I’m not feeling the urge to crack a bottle of celebratory champagne. While it’s good to see the F-word being used without apology, it’s hard to avoid the rather depressing conclusion that what has done most to raise feminism’s profile over the last 12 months is the resurgence of an equally unapologetic anti-feminism. This was not a year when women forged ahead, it was a year when things got bad enough to prompt them to fight back. The display of defiance was cheering; the conditions that produced it were not.

Those conditions were reflected in what I blogged about this year. Looking back, I see that one recurring theme was the way women are let down by the language used to report or comment on sexual harassment, abuse and violence. In July I wrote about the banal sexism of the clichés used in reporting so-called ‘family tragedies’, where a man kills his partner and their children, and sometimes follows this by taking his own life. Later, as attention focused on sexual harassment in Hollywood, in the Houses of Parliament and in a host of more ‘ordinary’ workplaces, I criticised the media’s use of vague, euphemistic terms like ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Without denying that this is a challenging subject to report on, I’m increasingly convinced that wrapping the ugly realities up in bland, inexplicit language is not the answer. It doesn’t help the ‘silence-breakers’ to feel heard, nor the wider public to understand what’s really happening. What inexplicitness does do, however–and we’ve seen plenty of examples–is make it easier for defenders of the status quo to minimise the problem or recycle popular myths about what causes it (Will Saletan’s suggestion that we should teach girls to ‘say no firmly’ was the starting point for one of my most-read posts this year).

One of the many things that’s wrong with the ‘just say no’ approach is that a lot of men do not respond well to a woman telling them what to do. (Plenty of women don’t like it much either.) Our ingrained cultural resentment of female authority was another subject I addressed in several of this year’s blog posts. This attitude shows up in what I called the gender ‘respect gap’, a tendency to downgrade women’s status which is manifested in, for instance, the non-use of professional titles for women doctors and academics, or the automatic assumption that married women should be called by their husband’s last name. These small insults are difficult to challenge, partly because individual women may not realise that their own experience exemplifies a more general pattern, but also because complaining about them seems petty or self-aggrandising.

There are also, of course, less subtle ways of using language to put women in their place. These are especially common in the political sphere, where they are also difficult to challenge because their targets are afraid of appearing ‘weak’. Women know they are vulnerable to the charge of being ‘over-sensitive’, too delicate to cope with the proverbial ‘rough and tumble’ of democratic debate—though few male politicians have any first-hand experience of the kind of abuse their female colleagues have to deal with.

Speaking in Parliament in July, the Labour MP Diane Abbott quoted one of the many abusive tweets she had received during the recent General Election campaign, saying she should be hung ‘if they can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’ (and that was a rare case where the sender didn’t throw in the N-word). The Prime Minister Theresa May has been described by her own Conservative colleagues as ‘mummy’ and ‘a bloody difficult woman’, while the press has depicted her as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix and, in one recent cartoon, the 1950s ‘call girl’ Christine Keeler. You don’t have to admire May or support her party (ditto for Abbott and hers) to see this kind of verbal and visual representation as an attack on all women who hold, or might aspire to hold, positions of authority and power.

On the other side of the gender respect gap live men who have somehow convinced themselves and others that their every random thought, no matter how commonplace, foolish or offensive, deserves our fullest attention and most enthusiastic applause. This year’s notable examples included the whiny and verbose Google memo-writer James Damore, the Uber director David ‘No Filter’ Bonderman (whose response to the idea of recruiting more women to the Board was to worry that more women would mean ‘more talking’), and the PR guru Richard Edelman, who suggested, during an all-male panel discussion at the industry’s annual ‘Hall of Femme’ [sic] event, that if women wanted to be successful they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’. It’s true that these men’s contributions did not go unchallenged (Damore was fired, and Bonderman resigned), but it’s also true that their brand of masculinity—glib, cocky, untroubled by self-doubt—remains our cultural prototype for what leadership looks like.

Mary Beard has pondered this phenomenon in her recently-published book Women and Power: A Manifesto, where she points out that its roots are very deep: ‘as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation—real, cultural and imaginary—between women and power’.  She doesn’t, however, advocate the liberal solution which I’ve criticised so frequently on this blog, encouraging women to be more like men. As she observes,

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

Changing the structure has always been the project of feminism, at least in its more radical forms. But as we’ve seen very clearly over the last year and a half, patriarchal power structures are resilient: they persist, and they adapt. We will need to do the same. Happy New Year, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.



On being explicit

Note: towards the end of this post there are some examples of sexually graphic and threatening language.

It’s almost exactly a year since I first read Emma Jane’s book Online Misogyny: A Short (and Brutish) History. It does exactly what it says on the tin: in just over 100 pages it tracks the development of online misogyny from the late 1990s to the present. And it doesn’t spare us the details. On the very first page we’re given several examples of the distinctive register Jane calls ‘Rapeglish’. To the question she knows some readers will be asking–‘why didn’t you give us a content warning?’–she replies that there was no warning for the women these messages were sent to.

Jane believes that if we’re serious about tackling online misogyny, we need to know what it looks like and what it feels like:

We must bring it into the daylight and look at it directly, no matter how unsettling or unpleasant the experience may be.

This point doesn’t just apply to online abuse. In recent weeks, sexual harassment has been high on the mainstream news agenda; and this has sparked debate on what kind of language to use in reporting it.

As regular readers may recall, in early November I published a post criticising the mainstream media for their endless repetition of the formulaic phrase ‘inappropriate behaviour’–a bland, all-purpose euphemism whose effect is to minimise the seriousness of the issue. I feel the same about another media favourite, ‘sexual misconduct’. This is slightly less mealy-mouthed than ‘inappropriate behaviour’ (since it doesn’t totally erase the sexual element), but it’s still an affectless, catch-all term which allows us not to look directly at what the perpetrator actually (or allegedly) did.

Not long after I wrote my post, Vox published a piece entitled ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, in which the journalist Constance Grady laid out the dilemma she faces when reporting on sexual harassment:

You can make your language clinical but vague, or you can make it graphic but specific. … I have found that the less specific my language is, the more invisible the violence becomes. But I also worry that the more specific I get, the more sensationalized my language feels.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Grady doesn’t want to downplay the violence, but being specific in this context means being sexually explicit, and that can cause problems of its own:

A survivor…could easily be triggered; even if you’re not a survivor, reading multiple graphic images…can be emotionally trying or even numbing. Such descriptions can also swing the other way, and become luridly fascinating in a way that feels exploitative, as if I am writing pornography rather than reporting on a sexual assault case.

‘Respectable’ mainstream news outlets do generally try to avoid sexually explicit language–not because they share Grady’s feminist concerns, but for more traditional reasons of ‘taste and decency’. Hence their fondness for such bland, generic formulas as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’.

This isn’t just a journalists’ dilemma, it’s also a longstanding problem for feminist campaigners on the issue of sexual violence. To make women’s experiences speakable you have to name them; but if you want them to be speakable in a court of law, or in the New York Times (whose masthead famously proclaims that it reports ‘all the news that’s fit to print’), the words you use have to be acceptable, not (porno)graphic or otherwise offensive. That, however, increases the risk that over time they will be depoliticised, used in such vague, euphemistic or trivialising ways that they no longer serve their original feminist purpose.

In October the New York Times published an op-ed piece which made exactly this argument about the current usage of ‘sexual harassment’. The author asserted that since it first acquired mainstream currency in the mid-1970s, this originally feminist coinage had been ‘co-opted, sanitized [and] stripped of its power to shock’. Corporations, she argued, had taken ‘a term that once spoke to women about revolution’ and made it into a piece of ‘corporate-friendly legalese’, the stuff of HR manuals and training courses designed less to advance the cause of workplace equality than to protect employers from lawsuits.

This criticism is all the more damning if we consider the identity of the critic. The words I’ve just quoted are the words of Lin Farley—the woman who literally wrote the book on sexual harassment at work, and who is credited with introducing the term into mainstream public discourse. Farley now wants feminists to reclaim and re-politicise it. How does she think we should do it?

By talking about the details — every time. By making the reality of what it looks like clear. …In this context, the most valuable part of the exposures of men like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes may lie in the excruciating, unforgettable details. This is where the heart of understanding the truth of sexual harassment resides.

Emma Jane is also in favour of talking about the details. In Online Misogyny she reproduces not only ‘a multitude of examples, but….a multitude of unexpurgated examples’. Her insistence on quoting abusers’ own words reflects her belief that when academics or the media skate over the details–when they simply describe messages as ‘graphic’ or ‘threatening’, without repeating their actual content–they are unwittingly contributing to the problem. The refusal to be explicit tells women who are experiencing abuse that the details should not be aired in public; it also allows people who have not experienced abuse to go on believing that it’s really not that serious–that women who get upset are just ‘princesses’ who need to ‘toughen up’.

Women who have been targets of abuse have made similar points themselves. The classicist Mary Beard, for instance, who was viciously attacked after a TV appearance in 2013, told an interviewer:

You never know what it’s like, because no mainstream paper will print it, nobody on the radio will let you say it…

Though Beard had received numerous rape and death threats, along with other sexually graphic messages, what the media reports foregrounded was the abusers’ insulting comments on her appearance. Consequently, she said, her concerns were decried as trivial:

It came to look as if I was worried that they’d said I hadn’t done my hair.

A few months later there was a sustained attack on Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist who had successfully campaigned for a woman to be represented on a Bank of England banknote. The abuse Criado-Perez experienced was so intense and so threatening, two of those responsible would eventually be sent to prison. But while it was actually happening, as she recalls in her book Do It Like A Woman, the news reports ‘spoke vaguely of online abuse’, and whenever she was interviewed she was warned to keep her language ‘polite’.  ‘I was forced’, she writes,

to shield members of the public from something from which no one had been able to shield me. And I have been labelled a ‘delicate flower’ by certain commentators as a result. They thought I was just complaining that someone had sworn at me.

She goes on to reproduce a few of the messages she received, and at this point I am going to do the same (I’ve avoided it so far, but complete avoidance is starting to feel hypocritical):


I have a sniper rifle aimed directly at your head currently. Any last words you fugly piece of shit? Watch out bitch.


How can you make people understand the effect of receiving thousands of messages like this in the space of one weekend if you cannot repeat them, or say any of the words they contain?

We are back to Constance Grady’s dilemma: repeated exposure to sexually graphic and violent language may cause readers and listeners distress, but shielding them from the reality of abuse by wrapping it up in linguistic cotton wool means that women’s experiences will be trivialised or denied.

It may also mean that perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt. Vague language has been a gift to apologists like Matt Damon, who has talked about ‘a spectrum of behaviour’ (meaning, OK, there are extreme cases like Harvey Weinstein, but most men who’ve been accused of ‘misconduct’ have done nothing really wrong). By contrast, it would hardly be convincing to talk about ‘a spectrum of threatening to shoot a woman in the head’, or ‘a spectrum of whipping your penis out and forcing a woman to watch you masturbate’.

Violent men throughout history have not only relied on women’s fear to keep them compliant, they have also relied on women’s shame to keep them silent. In the last few weeks many women have broken their silence (in some cases a silence that had lasted years); but when their accounts are presented in a veiled, inexplicit language, that subtly reinforces the idea that their experiences are somehow shameful. We cannot put that shame where it belongs–with the perpetrators, not their victims–if we cannot describe the details of what was done and what was said. So, while I don’t dismiss the problems Constance Grady discusses, I am ultimately of the same opinion as Emma Jane, Lin Farley and Caroline Criado-Perez: it’s important to be explicit.

One word, two words, pink words, blue words

girl words

Once upon a time, someone had the bright idea of making sets of fridge magnets for young children learning to read and write. All the children were following the same school curriculum, but since the designers knew they came in two distinct varieties–some were girls and some were boys–they decided to make two different versions of the product. The girls’ version featured words like ‘make-up’, ‘bunnies’ and ‘love’, while boys were given words like ‘money’, ‘car’ and ‘dirt’.  boy wordsTo make sure everyone would know which words were suitable for which children, the designers mounted the magnets on colour-coded pink and blue card.

Parents expressed their gratitude in the reviews they posted on Amazon. ‘Thank goodness for this product!’ wrote one:

For a while now I’ve been concerned about my little girl – she has been showing an increased interest in things which are clearly just for boys, such as monsters and climbing. I have even seen her on occasion use money, ride a bike or go swimming. This product has been a godsend as it has allowed me to say to her once and for all: “These are boys’ things and they do not concern you.”

Another declared himself ‘relieved that the [boys’] set excludes any words that might relate to any form of intellectual pursuit or emotion (other than fear)’.

Not all the reviews were so sarcastic, but almost none of them were positive: most people who left comments were critical of the magnets, and some called on Amazon to stop selling them. The crude stereotyping struck many as particularly out of place in a product that was meant to be educational. As one commenter put it, ‘Words are universal. Vocabulary is not gender-specific unless we make it so’.

But in reality, of course, we do make it so. By repeatedly using certain words about certain kinds of people, we create patterns which are more or less strongly gender-marked. The words are not ‘gender-specific’ in the sense that they can only be used by or about girls and women or boys and men. It’s more that we’ve learned to associate them with either femininity or masculinity. The adjectives ‘feisty’, ‘petite’ and ‘shrill’, for instance, are so strongly coded as ‘feminine’ words, applying them to a male may be taken as a comment on his (lack of) masculinity. In most cases the gender-coding is subtler, but it’s still part of our tacit knowledge.

You can test this out for yourself by looking at the wordlists I’ve reproduced below:

List 1

active, adventurous, analytic, assertive, battle, boast, challenge, champion, confident, courage, decision, decisive, defend, determine, dominant, driven, fearless, fight, force, greedy, headstrong, impulsive, independent, individual, intellect, lead, logic, objective, opinion, outspoken, persist, principle, reckless, self-confident, self-reliant, self-sufficient

List 2

agree, affectionate, collaborate, commit, communal, compassion, connect, considerate, cooperate, depend, emotional, empathy, enthusiasm, feel, gentle, honest, inclusive, interpersonal, interdependent, kind, kinship, loyal, modesty, nurturing, pleasant, polite, quiet, responsible, sensitive, submissive, support, sympathetic, tender, together, trust, understand, warm

There are no words on either of these lists which could not, in principle, be used in reference to either sex. But the words on List 1 have more masculine associations, while the ones on List 2 are more associated with femininity. If I described some gender-unspecified person as ‘dominant, driven and fearless’ you would be likely to imagine a man; if I described them as ‘nurturing, pleasant and polite’ you would be likely to imagine a woman.

One striking difference between the two lists is that a lot of the ‘masculine’ words seem to be describing leaders, achievers and rugged individualists, whereas most of the ‘feminine’ words describe helpers, supporters and carers. This contrast figures so prominently, you might suspect me of taking the words straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But in fact, I took them from a webpage explaining a piece of software called the Gender Decoder for Job Ads. And the source from which the software designer took them was a 2011 article in a psychology journal, entitled ‘Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality’.

The authors of this study began by looking for gender-marked vocabulary in the job ads on two popular Canadian listings sites. Their sample included ads for both male-dominated occupations like plumbing, engineering and computing ,and female-dominated occupations like nursing, early childhood education and HR. Their analysis showed that the male-field ads used significantly more masculine-coded words.

So far, you might think, so unsurprising: but the kicker is in the second stage of the research, which involved presenting male and female subjects with ads for various positions (they included male-dominated, female-dominated and ‘neutral’ fields) which had been manipulated to make the wording either strongly ‘masculine’ or strongly ‘feminine’. For instance, one version of an ad for an administrative assistant stated that the company was looking for someone ‘dependable and reliable’, while the other specified that the applicant should be ‘independent and self-reliant’. Subjects were asked to say how appealing they found each position, and whether they felt they belonged in the role.

The main finding was that women saw jobs as less appealing, and were less likely to think they belonged, when an ad relied heavily on masculine-coded vocabulary. (Men’s perceptions were less affected by the choice of words: they did find ‘feminine’ ads less appealing than ‘masculine’ ones, but the effect was very slight.) The researchers concluded that the wording of job ads is a factor affecting women’s willingness to apply. The issue isn’t just that women see themselves as unsuited to particular kinds of work: even when they have the right qualifications, the perception that they won’t fit in cropped-c47620c5e92a01104c2e9b60258cc3fb.gif is reinforced by ads that use masculine-coded language (e.g. ‘we are looking for a self-reliant individual who is driven to achieve results’), and can be countered by ads that substitute more ‘feminine’ terms (e.g., we are looking for a committed, responsible team-member who is sensitive to clients’ needs)

This finding prompted the development of the Gender Decoder for Job Ads, a tool designed to help organisations avoid gender bias in recruiting. It works rather like the Gender Genie, which I discussed in an earlier post: if you paste the text of a job ad into it, it will calculate the relative proportions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words, and on that basis tell you whether your ad has an overall bias. I came across it on a blog maintained by the UK Parliamentary Digital Service, which published a guest-post earlier this year entitled ‘Breaking the bro code‘. The writer argued that ‘removing masculine words from job adverts is a quick and easy step to attract more women’. This view seems to be gaining ground: Iris Bohnet, for instance, the author of an influential book called What Works: Gender Equality By Design, describes the wording of job ads as ‘low-hanging fruit’ for those who want to reduce bias and build diverse, inclusive workplaces.

My own feelings about this approach are mixed. I certainly don’t dispute that there are bits of the ‘bro code’ which we could and should dispense with: they hang so low their knuckles are dragging on the ground. For instance, according to the Harvard Business School’s recruitment blog, the use of ‘ninja’ as a job title in the tech sector increased by 400% between 2012 and 2016.  By all means let’s stop advertising for ‘ninjas’ (unless they’re being employed as role-players in an exhibit about feudal Japan). And while we’re at it, we could cut out the kind of meaningless guff which so many job ads are full of–corporate clichés like ‘we strive to be competitive in a demanding global marketplace’, which increase the masculine vocabulary quotient without adding anything of substance. cropped-job_ad_buzzwords2.jpg

But while I’m all for getting rid of what’s unnecessary and offputting (or in the case of ‘ninja’, idiotic), I’m always wary of approaches to sexism which treat changing language as a panacea. Language is rarely the root cause of the problem: it’s the outward and visible symptom of a deeper cultural disease. In this case, for instance, the problem that has to be tackled isn’t just that the language of job ads is inadvertently alienating women. The deeper problem is the gender-code itself: it’s the fact that words like ‘analytic’ and ‘logical’ are generally understood (by women as much as men) to denote ‘masculine’ qualities. That’s got nothing to do with the words themselves, and everything to do with our cultural beliefs about what men and women are like (‘these are boys’ things and they do not concern you’).

Just substituting ‘feminine’ for ‘masculine’ words in job ads does nothing to address this deeper problem. Even if it persuades more women to apply for jobs in male-dominated fields, it does so in a way that leaves the codes themselves intact. It says to women, in effect, ‘you may think you don’t belong in this job, but actually you do, because it isn’t really about leadership and competition, it’s about stuff women are good at, like teamwork and collaboration’. Is that challenging gender stereotypes or is it pandering to them?

Iris Bohnet, the author of What Works, might respond that I’m missing the point here. The evidence suggests that changing the language of job ads ‘works’: it helps to diversify the applicant pool for jobs. So what if people still mentally put words, and the attributes they denote, into pink and blue boxes? ‘It’s easier’, Bohnet says, ‘to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets’.

As I said before, my feelings about this are mixed: it’s not that I can’t see the force of Bohnet’s argument. But in the end I think feminism does have to be about changing mindsets rather than just devising procedures to work around them. And while I realise there’s no quick fix for sexist thinking, I’ve been alive for long enough to know that change is possible. Back in 1962, when I was learning to read, no parent would have objected to those pink and blue fridge magnet sets. Today, many parents find them objectionable. It’s been a long, slow process, and it isn’t finished yet. But if researchers 100 years from now discover that ‘logical’ is still a blue word and ‘compassionate’ is still a pink word, my ghost will be seriously disappointed.




Mind the respect gap

There’s a woman I know who does a lot of broadcast interviews, because she’s an expert on something that’s often in the news. And she’s noticed something annoying: the interviewers she talks to—not all of them, but quite a few—are in the habit of addressing her with just her first name, whereas the male experts on the same programme are typically given an academic title. ‘Thank you, Dr Jones. Now Sarah, if I could turn to you…’.  ‘I’m not usually precious about titles’, she says, ‘but I’ve got a Ph.D too’.

Sarah’s experience is not unusual. I regularly get emails from students which hail me as ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ Cameron, though my official title (‘Professor’) is on everything from my office door to the university website. Do the same students address my male colleagues as ‘Mr’? I have no way of knowing, but I doubt it happens very often. The writer and university teacher Rebecca Schuman agrees, reporting that she often hears male faculty members referred to as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ by people who routinely address her as ‘Ms Schuman’. ‘It happens all the time’, she emphasises, ‘and I often hear a sneer in the “izzzzz”’.

This isn’t just an issue in academia. It’s also been noted in another titled profession, medicine. In a study published earlier this year, researchers analysed video-recordings of a medical ritual known as Grand Rounds—a sort of regular mini-conference where hospital doctors present recent cases to their colleagues and medical students. They focused on the part of the proceedings where presenters are introduced by a colleague, and recorded, for each introduction sequence, whether the introducer named the presenter as ‘Dr X’, ‘Joe/Joanne X’ or ‘Joe/Joanne’. Then they crunched the numbers to see how the choice was affected by the sex of the introducer and the presenter. They found a clear pattern: in a context where every speaker is by definition ‘Dr X’, women were significantly less likely to be referred to by that title.

Actually, that wasn’t the only noteworthy finding, so let’s just unpack some of the details. The researchers found that women performing introductions at Grand Rounds nearly always introduced presenters, of both sexes, as ‘Dr X’: they used first names in just four cases out of a total of 106. Male introducers had a much lower overall usage of ‘Dr’ (which suggests that in general they favoured a more informal style), but the sex of the presenter made a significant difference. Men used ‘Dr’ far more frequently when introducing other men (72%) than when introducing women (49%).  DQYiq1EUMAEOlaL.jpg largeIt’s true that factors other than sex might play some part in this: we know, for instance, that the use of titles is influenced by age and professional status/seniority (variables which unfortunately this study did not investigate). But while those variables might account for some proportion of the male/female difference, at this point in the history of medicine it seems unlikely they could explain it all. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s a tendency for men to withhold professional recognition from women, because subconsciously they don’t regard women as equals.

The pattern revealed by this study is reminiscent of some other patterns I’ve discussed in earlier posts, like the tendency for men to dominate discussion in professional contexts and their habit of using endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ to female co-workers. It’s more evidence of what we might call, by analogy with the gender pay gap, the gender respect gap: other things being equal, women get less respect than men. But what I want to talk about in this post isn’t just the title-vs-first naming pattern itself–I’m sure that will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. It’s also my own (and I think, many other feminists’) ambivalence about it.

When I first read the Grand Rounds study, I thought: ‘yes, that’s happened to me’—and then I thought, ‘and actually I’ve been complicit in it’. I don’t think I’ve ever asked a media interviewer or the person introducing me at a conference to use my academic title rather than my first name. If students send emails to ‘Ms Cameron’ I normally let that pass too. And if I do ever feel moved to say something, I have the same impulse Sarah had to preface my complaint with a disclaimer: ‘I’m not usually precious about titles, but…’.  I don’t think this is because I suffer from that much-discussed female malady, impostor syndrome (‘don’t mind me, I shouldn’t really have this title anyway’). It’s more that, on the question of professional titles, feminists are caught between a political rock and a hard place.

As I’ve explained before, what address terms convey depends not only on which terms you choose, but also on whether or not they’re used reciprocally. Reciprocal usage of titles signals mutual respect between equals, along with a degree of social distance and formality; non-reciprocal usage (e.g., you call me ‘Professor’ but I call you ‘Susie’) suggests a status hierarchy in which one person must defer to the other. With first names and endearment terms, reciprocal usage signals intimacy or solidarity, whereas non-reciprocal usage, once again, implies a hierarchy. This dual-axis system (status versus solidarity, hierarchy versus equality) is what makes professional titles potentially a difficult area for feminists to negotiate. We may resent being addressed as ‘Sarah’ when the man beside us is ‘Dr Jones’, but we also tend to be uncomfortable demanding deference from others. We’re in favour of equality and reciprocity, not hierarchy.

This isn’t just a feminist thing. For people of my generation (I was born in the late 1950s), the use of first names rather than titles was one symbolic expression of the egalitarian values championed by progressive social movements in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I went to university in 1977, our teachers divided neatly along generational lines. The old guard maintained the traditional etiquette of distance and deference (we called them Dr/Professor, they called us either by our given names, or in some cases Mr/Miss), while the young Turks marked their cool, lefty credentials by telling us to call them ‘Bob’ (obviously they weren’t all named Bob, but they were, almost without exception, men).

Of course, this didn’t mean there was no hierarchy—the Bobs were marking our exams, not vice versa—but we liked the idea that they were treating us as equals, and encouraging us, as we also used to say, to ‘relate to them as people’. So when I became a lecturer myself, I found it natural to ask my own students to use my first name. As I saw it, insisting on a title meant you were old and out of touch, not to mention self-regarding and/or socially conservative. I wanted to make clear that I was none of those things.

The trouble is that, like so many symbolic gestures, this one doesn’t work for women or minorities the same way it works for white men—a point made forcefully by the Australian academic Katrina Gulliver, who explicitly takes issue with the young Turk tendency:

In most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.

Gulliver got a lot of flak for this, with many commenters telling her that she just didn’t understand Australian culture (she mentioned in the piece that she had previously worked in Germany). We’re more relaxed here, they said, we don’t go in for all that stuffy formality. But while it’s true there are cultural differences, we should be suspicious of the claim that first-naming is just about informality. Findings like the ones reported in the Grand Rounds study show that this isn’t the whole story: there really is a gender respect gap, and the ‘let’s not fixate on titles’ argument is too often trotted out on autopilot by people who don’t want to acknowledge that or to think about its real-world consequences. People like Will Miller, whose response to Gulliver was this:

I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.

This pious sentiment is hard to argue with, because today it is a truism that people should be respected for what they do rather than who they are, what they wear or what title they go by (whether that’s ‘Lord Muck’ or ‘Professor Miller’). But while in principle feminists also subscribe to this belief, we have reason to know that in practice respect, like money, is not distributed purely on the basis of individual merit.

Rebecca Schuman’s answer to Miller was scathing: ‘It takes a particularly privileged individual’, she commented, ‘to insist, though he commands unearned respect when he walks into a room (even in jeans), that respect must be earned’. Her point was that the Bobs, Daves and Will Millers can have their cake and eat it too. As members of the social group that provides our cultural template for authority, they can expect to retain students’ respect while also getting extra credit for not insisting on the deference to which their status in theory entitles them. Women, on the other hand, have often discovered that a symbolic display of humility from them is interpreted less as principled egalitarianism and more as a confirmation of their assumed inferior status. When it comes to authority, Katrina Gulliver suggests, a woman must either use it or lose it:

So, I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations.

But that ‘if’ clause points to a further complication. A woman who is—in Sarah’s words—‘precious about titles’ does risk being labelled bossy (not to mention arrogant, unfriendly and uncool). She can easily be cast as one of the stereotypical ‘nasty women’—the schoolmarm, the nagging nanny or the hideous old battleaxe—who turn up with such monotonous regularity in cultural representations of powerful women. All her options have costs as well as benefits; for her there is no magic ‘get out of jail free’ card. So what, in practice, should women do?

What I do myself is what I’ve always done: I ask students to use my first name, and—since language is my subject—I take a moment to discuss with them what this might communicate in the specific context of higher education (not that I want to be their friend, but that I recognise them as fellow-adults and expect them to act accordingly). I have never, personally, had much trouble with students being openly disrespectful: the sexism I’ve encountered has been more the ‘she’s a scary old battleaxe’ variety. At my advanced age and career stage, I can live with that (which is not to say I like it or think it’s fair). But when I read about other women’s experiences, I do wonder if I’m doing a disservice to my colleagues—especially the young women and women of colour who are likely to encounter a more extreme version of the respect gap.

I’m under no illusion that language on its own can close the gap. As I’ve said more than once on here, patterns of language-use do not arise in a social vacuum: ultimately I don’t think there is any kind of sexism which can be effectively addressed using purely linguistic measures. But language is part of the bigger picture. Is it incumbent on all of us to be ‘precious about titles’ so that the larger message about equality comes across more clearly and consistently? So that a title like ‘professor’ will stop automatically conjuring up a picture of a middle-aged white man in a tweed jacket?

I’m not sure what the answer is, and to be honest I can’t see myself changing the professional habit of a lifetime. But writing this has prompted me to make one new resolution. The next time I hear a woman expert being treated like Sarah—first-named by a media presenter who uses formal/deferential address terms with the male experts on the programme—I’m going to complain. And before you ask, yes, I’ll be signing the complaint ‘Professor’.

The comic book image in this post shows the 1940s character Jill Trent, Science Sleuth.