Woman up! (part 1) In praise of Nicola Sturgeon

‘Shows what political leadership looks like’. ‘The only grown-up in the room’. ‘The only leader with purpose, resolve and backbone’. These are some of the things media commentators have said about Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon since the result of the EU referendum plunged the UK into chaos at the end of last week. (If you’ve been asleep, or if you live somewhere this isn’t big news: Britain as a whole voted (narrowly—52: 48) to leave the EU, while Scotland voted (less narrowly—62: 38) to stay in.)

As usual, some news outlets have followed the unwritten rule that any positive assessment of a female politician must be served with a side-order of sexist clichés. The BBC website excelled in this regard:

“If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs… you will be a man, my son” wrote Rudyard Kipling. He may have got the gender wrong but he could have been talking about Nicola Sturgeon.  …Whilst Labour and Tory politicians were playing cricket, hanging out at Glastonbury or hiding away indoors Nicola Sturgeon pulled on the power heels and took charge.

Surely, just this once, they could have spared us the lazy ‘power heels’ reference.  (‘Hey, a woman leader—let’s make her shoes a metaphor for her attitude!’) And they could also have avoided that tedious gesture of presenting authority as an inherently male quality, so that any woman who displays it must immediately be described as behaving like a man (see also Margaret Thatcher, ‘the best man in the Cabinet’).

Actually, no one should be surprised by Sturgeon’s authoritative performance. Last year, when Sylvia Shaw and I wrote a book about gender and language-use in the General Election campaign, we took the linguist’s equivalent of a fine-tooth comb to the speech-styles of our political leaders. Sturgeon stood out as the best communicator of the bunch.

Of course, political leadership is not just about communication. Sturgeon is being commended for her substance as well as her style, and to some extent—depressing as this may be—simply for maintaining a public presence when the people you might have expected to ‘take charge’ (the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the organizers of the victorious ‘Leave’ campaign) were conspicuous by their absence. But in politics, facility with language isn’t just the icing on the cake. It’s a vital ingredient in any successful recipe. And Nicola Sturgeon has it in abundance.

What is it that makes her so impressive? Above all, I’d say, it’s her ability to operate effectively in a range of what linguists call ‘registers’, ways of speaking or writing that both reflect and help to define the nature of the situation. She isn’t a one-note political speaker: she knows how to vary her style and tone to suit the purposes of the moment (and she’s good at judging what the moment calls for). She can project gravitas using the traditional tools of formal rhetoric, and take down just about anyone in competitive debate; but she can also convey the sincerity and warmth we now demand from our political leaders.

Many of these qualities were on display in the speech she made after Saturday’s emergency Scottish cabinet meeting. She didn’t just focus on the most obviously newsworthy issue—whether the SNP would now be attempting to bring about a second independence referendum. She also took a moment to say this:

One group we want to reassure is EU citizens living here in Scotland. Those who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home will be protected.

Sturgeon had evidently grasped the importance of making a strong public statement of support for the non-Britons whose future was now in question. And she chose her words with care. She used the words ‘reassure’, ‘protect’ and ‘home’. She used the inclusive first person plural (‘we’, ‘us’): though strictly speaking the collective she spoke for was the cabinet, that ‘we’ was also hearable as a national, Scottish ‘we’. And she underlined both the seriousness of the issue and the explicitly positive stance her statement implied by using, unironically, the formal and slightly archaic phrase ‘done us the honour’.  (She has also made the same point using plainer words and direct, second-person address: ‘you are welcome here. This is your home’.)

Addressing the nation, Sturgeon sounds statespersonlike—calm, dignified, in control. But she can also do punchier, more combative messages, using colloquial language—often laced with sarcasm—to deliver a put-down to a political opponent.  In the General Election TV debates she repeatedly did this to Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. And post-Brexit she’s been doing it on Twitter, another medium where sharp rejoinders work well. She responded to Boris Johnson’s announcement that ‘Project Fear is over’ with a withering

Indeed, Boris. Project Farce has now begun, and you are largely responsible.

Sturgeon is an effective debater, not only because she’s articulate and stylistically flexible, but also because she fights her corner. During the General Election campaign it was a constantly repeated truism that women are less competitive and more ‘civilised’ debaters than men: allegedly they do more listening and less interrupting or talking over others. The women who participated in the national TV debates (Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett) were repeatedly praised by media commentators for their kinder, gentler approach. But in Sturgeon’s case this was wide of the mark. She was actually the most frequent interrupter in both debates, and the vast majority of her interruptions were challenges to the speaker she was interrupting.

This kind of behaviour can work against a speaker, by alienating the audience; Nigel Farage, who had the second highest interruption score, did not get an enthusiastic reception in the studio. But Sturgeon’s interventions were typically well-received: as well as interrupting more than anyone else, she got more applause than anyone else. (In the second debate she got 97 seconds of applause compared to 54 seconds for Ed Miliband and only 16 for Nigel Farage.)

When Sylvia Shaw and I examined Sturgeon’s performance in detail, we noticed she had a way of framing her contributions so that she seemed to be on the audience’s side—it was as if she had intervened to voice what many of them were thinking, or to explain in plain English what other speakers were cloaking in abstraction. For instance:

When Ed talks about ‘cuts outside some protected areas’ that’s jargon. Let me tell you what that means. That means cuts to social care, to social security, to local government services, to defence. Ed’s in the position that’s he’s so thirled to austerity, so scared to be bold that he’s not even doing the right thing by the NHS. He’s not promising the money the National Health Service needs. I think it’s time not for a pretend alternative to austerity, it’s time for a real alternative to austerity.

Opinion polls and focus group studies conducted during the campaign found that Sturgeon was perceived (even by people who strongly disagreed with her political views) as ‘authentic’, expressing her own sincerely-held beliefs in her own words, whereas Miliband was criticized for repeating lines he’d been coached in by spin-doctors. It’s possible he was no less sincere than she was, but he didn’t have her stylistic flexibility, nor the knack of cutting through the jargon and the waffle to sound like someone who spoke for ‘us’ (ordinary people) rather than ‘them’ (the political elite). That’s the ability which has come to the fore again this week: whether it’s her empathy for non-Britons living in the UK or her scathing criticism of ‘Project Farce’, many people are feeling that Scotland’s First Minister is speaking for them in a way other politicians are not.

Nicola Sturgeon is not, of course, the only impressive woman in British politics. The devolved legislative bodies of Scotland and Wales have produced a number of capable leaders: Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood performed better than the media gave her credit for in the General Election debates, and the new Conservative opposition leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, has also impressed commentators outside Scotland and outside her own party. At Westminster, too, there are women who are at least as well qualified to lead their parties as the men who currently do lead them. The biggest problem for these women isn’t what it’s often said to be—a lack of confidence in their own abilities, or a feminine preference for less visible, supporting roles. Of course, not everyone wants to be a leader or has the qualities to be a good one—but that’s true for men as well as women. Where well-qualified women do aspire to positions of leadership, the main problem they face is the one illustrated in my earlier quote from the BBC website: the ingrained perception of authority as male, and thus of female authority as unnatural and threatening.

As well as analysing the actual speech of politicians in the General Election campaign, Sylvia Shaw and I examined the way they were represented in the press. What we found striking wasn’t just the obvious cases of in-your-face sexism that everyone commented on (for instance, the notorious Sun picture of a scantily-clad Nicola Sturgeon astride a wrecking ball). It was the way writers’ assessments of female politicians–positive as well as negative–were implicitly guided by what seemed like extraordinarily old-fashioned assumptions about gender and authority. The cultural shorthand journalists used harked back to my own childhood in the 1970s. Women leaders were repeatedly compared to grotesque ‘battleaxes’ like the headmistress of St Trinian’s and Matron in the Carry On… films, or else to predatory ‘man-eaters’ and domineering, nagging wives (Nicola Sturgeon was likened, predictably, to Lady Macbeth, but also to Mildred in the old sitcom George and Mildred, and to a Black Widow spider who had already eaten Alex Salmond alive and was poised to do the same to Ed Miliband).

These allusions tap into a deep vein of male resentment towards women ‘taking charge’. A Freudian might say it’s about their mothers; the people who write this stuff would probably say it’s just a bit of light banter. I would say (and if saying it makes me a humourless feminist, so be it) that it’s no joke: it’s a serious problem for women in politics, and indeed in other areas of public and professional life. It’s the reason why research has found that a woman who scores high on perceptions of her authority will tend to score low on perceptions of her likeability. And since the ‘ideal’ modern leader is both authoritative and likeable, that’s a significant barrier to women’s advancement.

The existence of such a barrier is regrettable in any case, but it’s doubly regrettable in the present state of British politics. In the aftermath of the referendum we need women’s interests to be represented and women’s voices to be heard. The last week has given us more examples than we ever needed of powerful men behaving badly. Rather than presenting Nicola Sturgeon as an example of what it really means to ‘be a man’, shouldn’t the media be calling on the rest of our so-called leaders to ‘woman up’?  

This post draws on research done with Sylvia Shaw, whose contribution I acknowledge with thanks–though she isn’t responsible for the opinions I’ve expressed here.


Default: male

On Twitter recently, the British Green Party’s women’s organization explained why it had chosen to refer to its constituency as ‘non-men’ rather than ‘women’.

green party women

This inspired an outbreak of the kind of mockery and parody Twitter excels in. ‘What’s all this in my mentions about the non-blue party?’ inquired one user. Others urged the immediate rewriting of well-known feminist slogans and book titles, like ‘a non-man needs a man like a non-mammal needs a bicycle’ and The Non-Male Eunuch. Popular music was also fertile territory: ‘I’m Every Non-Man’ and ‘No Non-Man, No Cry’ were among the classics given the #greenpartyfeminism treatment.

The idea behind substituting ‘non-men’ for ‘women’ was to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people. It will be news to nobody that this is a contentious issue in contemporary feminist politics. But whatever position you take on the issue itself, ‘non-men’ remains problematic from a linguistic point of view. It cannot easily be made to function as an inclusive, feminist or non-sexist term, because it repeats the most basic and ubiquitous of all sexist linguistic gestures: treating men as the default human beings while relegating women to what the radical feminist linguist Julia Penelope dubbed ‘negative semantic space’. ‘Non-men’ defines a subordinated group in relation to the dominant group, ‘men’: consequently it ends up, in today’s jargon, ‘centring’ the dominant group, even if that isn’t the intention.

The idea of maleness as the default setting is manifested linguistically in all kinds of ways. My last post discussed another version of the same principle—the gratuitous gendering of women like Zaha Hadid, who was often referred to as a ‘female/woman architect’, whereas men are simply ‘architects’. In many languages the male-as-default principle is built into the grammatical system, requiring masculine forms of articles, adjectives and pronouns to be used both in generic references to a category and in specific references to any group containing even a single male individual.

But it isn’t just in language that this principle holds sway. It influences the way we process all kinds of representations of the world—visual as well as verbal.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read about a recent study in which the linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer analysed the gender distribution of the dialogue across the entire canon of Disney princess films, from Snow White in 1937 to Frozen in 2013. To many people’s surprise and consternation, they found that the proportion of the spoken dialogue given to female characters had actually decreased over time. In Snow White women got approximately half the lines; in Sleeping Beauty (1959) they had just over three quarters. With The Little Mermaid (1989), however, their share dropped to under a third. In the most recent film analysed, Frozen, it was 41%—even though Frozen has two central female characters.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the ‘default male’ principle, the answer is, quite a lot. According to the researchers, what’s driving the trend isn’t primarily a change in how much the central female characters speak. It has more to do with the move (first made in The Little Mermaid) to Broadway musical-style ensemble casts featuring more supporting characters–the majority of them, as it turns out, male.

In Karen Eisenhauer’s view, what’s behind the imbalance is an unconscious form of male bias:

My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm. So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.

It isn’t just the people at Disney who display this ingrained tendency to imagine the prototypical representative of a category like ‘shopkeeper’ or ‘guard’ as a man rather than a woman. We all do it. We only have a female prototype for roles which are very heavily stereotyped as female (like ‘secretary’ or ‘witch’). By contrast, the tendency to assume that a ‘generic’ X will be male doesn’t just apply to the most stereotypically male roles (like ‘drill sergeant’ or ‘construction worker’), it applies to any role that isn’t almost exclusively reserved for women.

I agree with Karen Eisenhauer that this form of bias isn’t usually conscious and deliberate (if it were, it might be easier to get rid of). But I think there may be more to it than carelessness. If we want to see what else might be going on, a good place to look is in cartoons of another kind, the kind where a single visual image with dialogue and/or a caption is used to make a joke. Here’s an example.

avant guard dog

The joke here does not depend on the sex of the dog. It’s not even clear whether it has a sex. There’s no verbal specification of whether it’s male or female, and its outfit–the beret, sunglasses and narrow pants–belongs to an androgynous ‘bohemian’ style which has been worn by women as well as men (for instance, Juliette Gréco in Paris in the 1950s). Nevertheless, I read it immediately as a male dog.

Here’s another canine cartoon, where the joke is a bit more complex.


In this case I read all the characters, human and canine, as male. In the human case that’s not surprising: arguably the joke about outsourcing hunting requires them to be men, on the basis that our mental prototype for stone-age scenarios includes (accurately or not) the information that men were the hunters. But why do the wolves-slash-dogs have to be male? (In this case that’s not just my interpretation: one of them is addressed as ‘Tony’ and their boss is referred to as ‘Steve’.)

The obvious answer is that the animals in these cartoons are being anthropomorphized, and our reading of their sex reflects our prototype for human guards or business entrepreneurs. But while I think that’s right as far as it goes, I’d argue it isn’t the whole story.

A cartoon is a highly condensed kind of message, which will fail if the recipient doesn’t ‘get it’ at first glance. So it’s designed to get us to focus on the central point, without being distracted by incidental background details. One way to accomplish that is to depict something that’s instantly recognizable because it matches our prototype for the relevant social setting (be that a workplace, a restaurant, a classroom or a stone-age hunt). It’s not that we can’t make sense of non-prototypical scenarios when we encounter them in real life, but we process information faster when it doesn’t conflict with our default expectations. So, messing with the prototype is something that tends to happen only when the point is to challenge conventional expectations. This is a common strategy in feminist cartoons, where the point or joke is actually about gender or sexism. But in most cases gender is just a background feature: if you treat it non-prototypically you risk pushing it into the foreground and ruining the intended effect.

To see what I’m getting at, try imagining the wolf/dog cartoon with female canine characters (‘Tina’ and ‘Sue’ rather than ‘Tony’ and ‘Steve’). It’s possible, right? As anyone who’s watched The Apprentice knows, in the real world there are female entrepreneurs who use words like ‘rebranding’ and ‘outsourcing’; and substituting female characters would make no difference to the joke, because the joke has nothing to do with sex/gender.

But that’s exactly the problem. If we imagine entrepreneurs as prototypically male, we’re primed to respond to the substitution of a female one by assuming that her femaleness must be significant—that it’s central to the joke rather than just an incidental detail. So, in this case people might think the joke is about women outwitting men while letting them think they’re in charge, when really it’s about wolves doing that to humans. Similarly, if a joke began with the formula ‘an Englishwoman, an Irishwoman and a Scotswoman…’ we’d anticipate a punchline relating to the characters’ sex as well as their national origins. Otherwise, why deviate from the usual all-male line-up of ethnic stereotypes?

To keep the joke ‘clean’, you have to avoid distracting people with unexpected background details, like a female placed without comment in the slot for a generic category-member (a guard dog, a businesswolf, a Scot, or whatever). But the result is that women are either absent from cartoons which aren’t directly about women, or else they only appear in very stereotypical roles where their presence is in line with our expectations.

Here’s a cartoon which uses gender stereotyping in a joke about something else:

anger management

The humour here depends on incongruity—setting up a prototypical office scenario, and then showing someone doing or saying something which confounds our expectations of that scenario. In this case, gender stereotyping (the secretary is a woman and the therapist is a man) increases both the conventionality and the incongruity. The woman (middle aged and conservatively attired) is both exactly the kind of person you’d expect to fill the ‘secretary’ slot, and exactly the kind of person you would least expect to utter the words ‘fuck off’. If the cartoonist had put a man in this slot, the joke would still (IMHO) be funny, but it would arguably be slightly less funny.

These are not overtly sexist cartoons. They aren’t making a point about women, or male-female relations; the women (where there are any) aren’t being mocked or belittled or objectified. Yet I’ve been arguing that they are, in fact, examples of low-level sexism. What they exemplify is the kind of pattern ethnomethodologists call ‘seen but unnoticed’: like the background noise in a coffee shop, we tune it out so we can concentrate on the important stuff in the foreground. I tuned it out: they all made me laugh. But should feminists be so willing to tune it out?

When we criticise sexist representations, or look for alternatives to them, we are typically—and understandably—most concerned about what’s in the foreground. Our first question when choosing books or films for children, for instance, will often be whether there’s a ‘strong’ female central character, someone active and resourceful who doesn’t just waft about looking pretty. Contemporary producers often share that concern. In the case of Disney princess films, as Karen Eisenhauer notes,

If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there’s so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and always it’s a feminist discourse in some way. They want her to be powerful.

The trouble is, as she also says, that this kind of discussion ‘never, ever seems to have gone beyond the princess’. Concerns about sexism and stereotyping do not extend to the depiction of the larger social world which forms the backdrop to the central character’s story.

But it’s not all about the princess. Whether we’re children learning about the world for the first time or adults using our existing knowledge to make sense of new situations, we’re always absorbing information from the seen-but-unnoticed (that is, not consciously noticed) background. And the beliefs we form in the process are hard to shift. But from a feminist perspective it’s important to try to shift them.

Social change only really succeeds when new ways of thinking, speaking and acting become normalized, taken for granted and treated as unremarkable. To put it another way, when the background changes. When we stop needing extra time to process a sentence that refers to a doctor or supervisor as ‘she’. When we don’t think ‘hey, a woman!’ if it’s a female voice that addresses us from the flight-deck. When the minor characters in stories and jokes—generic shopkeepers, guard dogs, stone-age people or space aliens—are as likely to be female as male, and no one thinks anything of it. When no one is a ‘non-man’—or more importantly, a non-person.

Cartoon credits: ‘Avant guard dog’ from Speed Bump, by Dave Coverly; ‘The domestication of the wolf’ by Chaz Hutton;  ‘Anger management’ by Donald Reilly.

To gender or not to gender? (Thoughts prompted by the death of Zaha Hadid)

Last week, after Zaha Hadid’s death was announced, someone I know posted on Facebook: ‘It’s annoying that the coverage keeps referring to her as “the world’s most prominent female architect”. Why not “one of the world’s most prominent architects?”’

Most people who responded agreed that it was sexist to put Hadid into a subcategory of ‘female architects’ rather than acknowledging her status as one of the leading figures in contemporary architecture, period. But one person dissented, arguing that since it’s still harder for women to succeed in most professions, drawing attention to Hadid’s sex underlined rather than detracting from her achievements. This commenter also felt that highlighting women’s successes explicitly was important, because it helped to inspire other women and girls.

‘To gender or not to gender’ is a question that has also divided feminist linguists. Robin Lakoff, author of the influential early text Language and Woman’s Place, is among those who have argued that using gender-marked language has a profoundly negative effect. In 2007 she explained to William Safire (who wrote the New York Times’s language column until his death in 2009),

The use of either woman or female with terms such as ‘president, speaker, doctor, professor’ suggests that a woman holding that position is marked — in some way unnatural, and that it is natural for men to hold it (so we never say ‘male doctor,’ still less ‘man doctor’).

She went on:

Every time we say ‘woman president’, we reinforce the view that only a man can be commander in chief, symbolize the U.S. (which is metonymically Uncle Sam and not Aunt Samantha, after all), and make it harder to conceive of, and hence vote for, a woman in that role.

What Safire had actually asked her about was an old grammatical shibboleth. Pedants insist that referring to someone as a ‘woman architect/ doctor/professor’ is ungrammatical, because a noun can only be premodified by an adjective, not another noun. In their view, therefore, it should be ‘female architect/doctor/professor’. This, incidentally, is bullshit. Countless everyday English expressions are constructed on the ‘noun + noun’ model: for instance, ‘apple tree’, ‘dog collar’, ‘garden shed’ and ‘wedding ring’. Adjectives can fill the same slot, but there’s no law reserving it for their exclusive use. In any case, Lakoff derailed the ‘woman v female’ debate by declaring that the right answer was ‘neither’. Women should just be called by the same word we use for men.

But the pedants obviously didn’t get that memo: last year, when Hillary Clinton announced the start of her campaign, there was a new outbreak of handwringing about whether she should be referred to (in the event she’s elected) as a ‘woman president’ or a ‘female president’. On one side we had the usual objection that ‘woman’ is ungrammatical, while on the other we had people saying that ‘female’ was disrespectful—more appropriate for describing livestock than the leader of the free world.

What no one seemed to be asking was Lakoff’s question, why the president’s sex needs to be specified at all. True, if Clinton wins in November there will be a ton of ‘America elects its first ____ president’ stories, and someone will have to decide what to fill the blank with. But after that, we can surely just refer to her as ‘the President’. It’s not as if people are going to confuse her with all the other serving presidents of the US. Or even with her husband, a former US president. We’re talking about a nation that elected two presidents named George Bush: they ought to be able to manage without constant reminders that Hillary is the female President Clinton.

But what about the idea that there is value in drawing attention to the achievements of women as women? Some feminist linguists do favour using gender-marked language to make women’s presence in the world more visible. Even if you accept Lakoff’s argument that  referring to ‘a woman X’ rather than just ‘an X’ reinforces the perception that ‘Xs’ are prototypically men, there are reasons to doubt whether using unmarked terms does much to shift that perception. Research suggests that gender- neutral occupational labels are still typically interpreted as referring to men where the role they denote is culturally stereotyped as male (e.g. ‘lorry driver’ or ‘firefighter’). Replacing gender-specific terms with generic/inclusive ones seems not to override people’s real-world understanding of the relationship between gender and occupational status.

My own view (as usual) is that there isn’t a single, simple linguistic solution to this problem. It’s a decision I think you have to make case by case, because so much depends on the specifics of the context. And the effect will also depend on how any gender-marking is done, using what specific label.For instance, there are contexts in which I would refer to someone as ‘a woman writer’ (as well as contexts where I would simply call them ‘a writer’). But there are no contexts in which I would use the term ‘authoress’, because that word does not just convey that the writer is a woman, it also implies that her work is trivial and inferior.

The baggage that has become attached to certain words in the course of their history of being used is relevant to the great ‘woman v. female’ debate. In his column on the subject, William Safire expressed surprise and disappointment that feminists now seemed to prefer ‘woman’ to ‘female’ and ‘gender’ to ‘sex’. He put this down to a growing cultural squeamishness, describing those who have ‘turned against’ biological terms as ‘faint-hearted sociological euphemists’. Readers who know more about feminist theory than Safire did will be aware that the ‘sex/gender’ question is complicated. But in the case of ‘woman/female’ there are more straightforward reasons for preferring ‘woman’ to ‘female’–and they have little to do with squeamishness about biology.

‘Female’ is not just interchangeable with ‘woman’, as you immediately realize when you look at a corpus (a large collection of authentic examples). My own quick-and-dirty search of the 100 million-word British National Corpus turned up a crop of ‘female’ examples like these:

1. My poor Clemence was as helpless a female as you’d find in a long day’s march
2. ‘Stupid, crazy female’, was all he said as he set about bandaging it.
3. A call yesterday involved giving the chatty female at the other end one’s address.

These are typical examples of the use of ‘female’ as a noun, and they all involve a male speaker making a disparaging judgment on the individual he’s referring to. The judgments would remain disparaging if you substituted ‘woman’ for ‘female’, but to my mind they would be less unequivocally contemptuous. Whereas ‘woman’ can feature in positive as well as negative judgments, it’s hard to think of any context in which the noun ‘female’ is used to praise its referent: no one would say, for instance, ‘my late grandmother was an absolutely marvellous female’.

Does the contempt conveyed by the noun ‘female’ have anything to do with its being, as Safire suggests, more biological than sociological? In the examples I’ve just quoted there isn’t any explicit reference to biology, but in some cases the term does seem to have been chosen to foreground the issue of biological sex difference, and the motive for this may be overtly anti-feminist.

Here, for instance, is what a Texas businesswoman named Cheryl Rios posted on Facebook after Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president:

A female shouldn’t be president. …with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the president, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.

When challenged she stood by her comment, saying: ‘The president of the United States, to me, should be a man, and not a female’.

What’s striking here is the way Rios uses the non-parallel terms ‘a female’ and ‘a man’ (rather than contrasting ‘a female’ with ‘a male’ or ‘a woman’ with ‘a man’). The consistency with which she does it suggests it isn’t just a random accident. It may not be a fully conscious choice, but she has evidently chosen her words to mirror her general proposition that women, unlike men, are in thrall to their biology, and are consequently unfit to hold the highest office.

There’s nothing ‘faint-hearted’ about objecting to the label ‘female’ when it’s used in this way and for this purpose. But that doesn’t mean we have to object to all uses of it for all purposes: as always with language, it’s horses for courses. For instance, it doesn’t bother me when I read in a scientific paper that the researchers ‘recruited a balanced sample of male and female subjects’. In a discussion of sex I’d be more likely to refer to ‘the female orgasm’ than ‘the woman’s orgasm’. Conversely I’d be more likely to say ‘women’s underwear’ than ‘female underwear’ (and don’t even get me started on ‘Female Toilet’: when it comes to that phrase I am, unashamedly, a pedant. Sex is a characteristic of toilet users, not toilets themselves.)

But this discussion of the merits of competing terms does not resolve the larger question of whether it’s desirable to use any kind of gender-marking in references to women like Hillary Clinton and Zaha Hadid. Hadid herself had a view on this (one which, interestingly, seems to have changed over time). She’s been quoted as saying:

I used to not like being called a ‘woman architect’: I’m an architect, not just a woman architect. Guys used to tap me on the head and say, ‘You are okay for a girl.’ But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.

It’s not hard to understand why successful women in heavily male-dominated fields so often say, ‘I don’t want to be judged as a woman, I want to be judged on my merits as an astronaut/conductor/ mathematician’. But the reality is that women can’t avoid being judged as women; whatever we say or do, we can’t make the world treat our sex as an irrelevance or a minor detail. And maybe we shouldn’t want it to be treated in that way. Another thing Zaha Hadid said on this subject was:

People ask, ‘what’s it like to be a woman architect?’ I say ‘I don’t know, I’ve not been a man’.

As this answer implies, sex and gender shape every individual’s life-experience: the difference between men and women isn’t that men aren’t affected by their maleness, it’s only that they are rarely asked to ponder its effects. Women, by contrast, are endlessly required to explain how their femaleness influences everything they do.

If Hadid herself declined to play this game, others were happy to play it for her, both during her life and after her death. Here, for instance, is what Bust (an online magazine that bills itself as ‘a cheeky celebration of all things female’) had to say last week:

The world became a little less whimsical today with the loss of Zaha Hadid. The Queen of Curve, who was widely regarded as the most famous living female architect in the world, passed away today at the age of 65.

It’s hard to imagine that future obituaries of male ‘starchitects’ like Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano will use words like ‘whimsical’. I chose to mention these two because they designed (among other things) the somewhat whimsical Pompidou Centre in Paris–while Hadid designed (among other things) the not-so-whimsical Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Kircaldy. As you’ll see from the illustration, this example of her work demonstrates her skill with straight lines and sharp angles. Nevertheless, she’s ‘The Queen of Curve’. Oddly enough, when men design curved structures, like Norman Foster’s dome over the Reichstag in Berlin, that isn’t seized on as their unique signature, nor do people routinely compare the buildings to female body parts.

‘To gender or not to gender’ remains a tricky question. In language as in life, what we need is a middle way. Women should not be defined entirely by their sex; but nor should we have to disclaim it entirely to be given whatever credit our contributions to the world deserve.

The taming of the shrill

During last year’s UK General Election campaign, Richard Madeley told readers of the Daily Express:

I can’t get enough of Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. That gorgeous accent! I could listen to it all day. It’s warmer than sunlight shining through a jar of honey.

Madeley wasn’t the only commentator who found the ‘warm’ or ‘lilting’ quality of Wood’s voice a bit of a turn on. Over in the USA, by contrast, it’s become a truth almost universally acknowledged that Hillary Clinton’s voice is a turn off. It’s been described by commentators as ‘loud, flat and punishing to the ear’, ‘decidedly grating’ and, inevitably, ‘shrill’.

The extent to which her critics have made an issue of Clinton’s voice has become a mainstream news story in its own right. Yet the topic of the male voice has barely featured in discussions of Clinton’s rival Bernie Sanders, nor in reporting on the Republican race, which is now an all-male affair. In the UK, similarly, election pundits expressed no opinions on the ingratiating smoothness of David Cameron’s vocal performance, or the blokeish braying of Nigel Farage. As Elspeth Reeve observed last year in the New Republic, men’s voices just don’t seem to make much impression:

[T]hink about Jeb Bush’s voice. It’s so—wait, what does it sound like again? He sounds just … like a guy, maybe?

It’s not that male politicians’ language gets no attention: there’s been plenty of commentary on their rhetoric, especially in the case of Donald Trump. And–as the New Republic piece goes on to demonstrate, quoting linguists like Penny Eckert, Carmen Fought and Mark Liberman–it’s not as if there’s nothing to say about the voices of Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Sanders. So, why is it only women whose voices are subjected to relentless critical scrutiny?  The short answer is, of course, ‘sexism’. But why does it take this particular form?

The most familiar feminist explanation for prejudice against the female voice connects it to the larger question of gender and authority. For historical and social reasons, the ‘unmarked’ or default voice of authority is a male voice;  criticism of female politicians’ voices is essentially a way of tapping into the still-widely held belief that women do not have the authority to lead.

Low voice pitch, a highly salient marker of maleness, is also strongly associated with authority. In 2012 an experimental study using digitally manipulated recordings of men and women saying ‘I urge you to vote for me this November’ found that judges of both sexes preferred the lower pitched version of each recording. Both men and women were advantaged by having a lower voice than their same-sex ‘rival’.

This association is what makes the word ‘shrill’, which combines the concept of high pitch with the idea of an unpleasantly piercing sound, such a common criticism of female public speakers. The linguist Nic Subtirelu has investigated the use of ‘shrill’, along with two other terms that do a similar job, ‘shriek’ and ‘screech’, in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. He calculates that the media are

2.17 times more likely to describe a woman or a girl as “screeching” (or a related form of the word) than a man. A woman or girl is also 3.14 times more likely to be described as “shrieking” (or a related form of the word), and she’s 2.3 times more likely to be described as “shrill”.

High pitch is associated not only with femaleness, but also with other characteristics which imply a lack of authority, such as immaturity (children have high-pitched voices) and emotional arousal (we ‘squeal’ with joy or fear, ‘shriek’ with excitement, ‘screech’ angrily). Saying that a woman’s voice is ‘shrill’ is also a code for ‘she’s not in control’.

It was this perception that led Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first and so far only woman Prime Minister, to undergo voice-training which lowered her pitch significantly. But the result was—to put it mildly—not to everyone’s taste. As Mrs Thatcher soon discovered, the only prejudice more widepread than scepticism about female authority is deep resentment of female authority.

That resentment is expressed in some of the other disparaging terms that are commonly used about women’s voices, like ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘grating’, ‘harsh’, ‘hectoring’ and ‘strident’. Rather than focusing on pitch, this set of negative descriptors focuses on the tone and volume of a woman’s voice to suggest that she is aggressive and overbearing.

Today this is an even bigger problem for female politicians than it was for Mrs Thatcher. In an age of interactive, 24/7 media, we no longer treat our leaders as remote authority figures: we want them to be likeable or ‘relatable’ on a human level. But research suggests that it is harder for women to combine authority with likeability. If they score well on one, they’ll do badly on the other.

The female authority figure with the ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ voice is not just unlikeable, she’s also stereotyped as sexually repulsive. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed media commentary on the UK General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech*, we were struck by how frequently women in authority—and not only politicians, but even the woman newsreader who moderated one of the TV debates—were compared to archetypal female ‘battleaxes’ like the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school, the sadistic nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and ‘Matron’ from the ‘Doctor’ and ‘Carry On’ films. What these fictional characters have in common is that they’re grotesque: ageing, usually ugly, and either totally sexless or sexually voracious, terrifying the male objects of their insatiable desire.

The theme of the sexually predatory female was especially noticeable in commentary on the relationship between Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, and the then-leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. In the Times, for instance, we got a strange little fable about pigeons, under the headline ‘Nicola Sturgeon and the politics of sadism’:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coo-cooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie who was being coy.

The Sun compared Sturgeon to a Black Widow spider who ‘eats her partners alive’. And in this extract from a political sketch in the Telegraph, the words used to evoke the quality of her voice (in this case through the choice of quotative verbs) play into the depiction of powerful women as bossy bullies:

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.”
…Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.
“There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Whereas Miliband ‘says’ things, ‘pleadingly’, Sturgeon ‘scowls’ and ‘barks’. Hillary Clinton has been described as ‘lecturing’ her audience (the behaviour of a schoolmarm or a strict mother) and her laugh has been called a ‘cackle’ (suggesting another version of the powerful but repulsive female, namely the witch).

Our cultural stereotype of the ‘attractive’ or sexually alluring female voice is very different. A ‘sexy’ voice may be high or low in pitch (think Marilyn Monroe or Lauren Bacall), but it is never ‘shrill’ or ‘grating’: it is breathy rather than clear, soft rather than loud, and ‘warmer than sunlight streaming through a jar of honey’.

Of course, a politician who used this voice would be criticized for ‘lacking authority’. Leanne Wood, whose warm and honeyed tones Richard Madeley said he could ‘listen to all day’, was endlessly patronized by the media: another writer described her as looking like ‘a 16-year-old whose date had failed to show up for the prom’. But unlike Margaret Thatcher, Nicola Sturgeon or Hillary Clinton, Wood did not commit the cardinal female sin of being a ‘turn off’.

Which brings me back to the question of why it’s women whose voices get all the attention. I think it’s at least partly for the same reason there’s more attention to female politicians’ faces, figures and clothes. Women are judged, to a far greater extent than men, by their perceived physical/sexual attractiveness. Judgments on a woman’s voice—the most directly embodied, physical aspect of linguistic performance—are part of the same phenomenon. And just like the judgments made on their bodies, the judgments made on women’s voices often express something more visceral, and more sexual, than the commentators are willing to admit.

Consider, for instance, Ben Shapiro’s defence of ‘shrill’ in a piece whose self-explanatory title was ‘Yes, Hillary Clinton is shrill. No, it’s not sexist to say so’.  His trump card is the observation that not all women politicians get called ‘shrill’:

Nobody calls Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) shrill, because she’s not shrill. She may have lifeless eyes, a doll’s eyes, but she doesn’t shriek like a wounded seagull.

‘Lifeless eyes, a doll’s eyes’??? On reflection, I think I agree with Shapiro that comments like these aren’t most aptly described as ‘sexist’. I’d describe them as outright misogyny.

*Gender, Power and Political Speech: Women and Language in the 2015 UK General Election, by Deborah Cameron and Sylvia Shaw

Do women and men write differently?

The title of this post is a question I’m frequently asked. Usually, what the questioner wants is (a) confirmation that there is, indeed, a difference, and (b) a list of the main stylistic features that distinguish women’s writing from men’s. If you’ve read this blog before, though, you won’t be surprised to hear that my actual answer is not that simple.

When people ask questions about male-female differences, they’re rarely motivated just by idle curiosity. They may formulate the question as a neutral inquiry into the facts of a given matter (‘how do men and women do X?’), but often the underlying question is more like ‘why do women have a problem doing X?’, or ‘what are women doing wrong when they do X?’ In relation to language, that last question is perennially popular: it’s the starting-point for all those ‘521 Verbal Bad Habits Women Really Need To Fix’ pieces. Recently, the critics who write this stuff have been preoccupied with the way women speak. But there’s also a long tradition of criticism which focuses on the way women write.

One commentator who has managed to link the two is Naomi Wolf. In the article she wrote last summer criticizing young women’s use of uptalk and vocal fry, Wolf suggested that these ‘destructive speech habits’ had also infected women’s writing. Among university students, she claimed,

Even the most brilliant [women] tend to avoid bold declarative sentences and organize their arguments less forcefully [than men].

As I pointed out at the time, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. But it’s exactly the kind of claim that doesn’t usually get scrutinized, because it repeats something we’ve heard or read a million times before. The (spurious) connection Wolf makes with women’s speech gives her argument a modern twist, but essentially she’s just recycling a very traditional view of women’s writing–that it differs from men’s in being less forceful, less daring, less logical in its structure and less individual in its style.

That view was already familiar in 1922, when the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen made one of the earliest attempts to survey what was known about gender differences in language-use. Women, according to Jespersen, were linguistically less innovative and less adventurous than men:

Women move preferably in the central field of language, avoiding everything that is out of the way or bizarre, while men will often coin new words or expressions. …Those who want to learn a foreign language will therefore always do well at the first stage to read many ladies’ novels, because they will there continually meet with…everyday words and combinations.

Jespersen also had doubts about women’s capacity to organize an argument using the complex syntax which is typical of formal writing (21st century readers should note that the word ‘period’ in this quotation means ‘sentence’):

A male period is often like a set of Chinese boxes, one within another, while a feminine period is like a set of pearls joined together on a string of ands and similar words.

What he’s saying is that men use subordinate clauses which allow them to specify the logical relationships between points (‘because…’, ‘however…’, ‘therefore…’), whereas women just string their points together in any old order using the all-purpose co-ordinator ‘and’. Actually, Jespersen seems to have thought that any kind of sentence-construction posed a bit of a challenge to the average female mind:

Women much more often than men break off without finishing their sentences because they start talking without having thought out what they are going to say.

If you’re wondering what evidence Jespersen had for these sweeping statements, the answer is, very little, and none that would pass muster today. But then as now, dodgy propositions about male-female differences often went unquestioned so long as they resonated with popular sex-stereotypes. And if they seemed to be at odds with the stereotypes you could always find a way to make them fit–as Jespersen ably demonstrates in this comment on an experiment which found that women read faster than men:

But this rapidity was no proof of intellectual power; some of the slowest readers were highly distinguished men. …With the quick reader it is as though every statement were admitted immediately and without inspection to fill the vacant chambers of the mind, while with the slow reader every statement undergoes an instinctive process of cross-examination.

In 1977 the researcher Mary Hiatt attempted a more systematic study of male-female differences in writing style. She picked 100 passages from works of popular fiction and non-fiction produced by male and female authors, and subjected them to linguistic analysis, plus a bit of basic number-crunching. Her main conclusions were that women used shorter, less grammatically complex sentences, had a less ‘authoritative’ style and were less likely than men to write in a way that stood out as ‘noteworthy’ or individually recognizable. In other words, she basically agreed with Jespersen. But this being the 1970s, she favoured a different explanation:

The chief reason is doubtless that women are a minority group, more likely to conform than to dare. …they seem unsure that anyone will believe them, reluctant to arrive at conclusions, a bit over-determined to present a cheerful face…

Hiatt’s methods don’t meet today’s standards either, most obviously because her data sample was so small. Since the 1980s, technological advances have enabled linguists to work with much larger samples. And I mean MUCH larger. One resource that’s often used by linguists in the UK, the British National Corpus, contains a hundred million words of authentic English, and was designed to offer a ‘balanced’ sampling of written genres, from scientific articles to tabloid editorials.

But even with massive amounts of data and powerful computers to process it, the question of whether men and women write differently is not a straightforward one to answer.

The methods used in corpus linguistics are pretty good at identifying what’s distinctive about the writing of a specific individual. It was these methods which revealed that ‘Robert Galbraith’, the obscure author of a moderately successful crime novel, was actually J.K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym. The analyst compared features of the Galbraith text to the way the same features were used in texts already known to be by Rowling. The match was close enough for him to conclude that ‘Galbraith’ must be Rowling (a conclusion Rowling then confirmed).

But it’s easier to identify an individual’s linguistic ‘signature’ than it is to do the same thing for a whole social group—especially one as large and internally diverse as ‘women’ or ‘men’. That diversity means that any generalization based on group averages will be false for large numbers of individuals.

The question is also complicated by the fact that the relationship between gender and language is often not direct, but mediated by something else. For instance, since writing is something people typically learn through formal instruction at school, men and women may write differently because they didn’t have the same access to education. If so, it’s somewhat misleading to call this a ‘gender difference’: there’s a connection with gender, but what’s producing the differences isn’t gender as such, it’s the related educational inequality.

Another thing that influences writing style is the genre someone is writing in (and, relatedly, the subject they are writing about). You don’t find the same linguistic patterns in academic articles and novels; you don’t find exactly the same patterns in history and physics articles, or in romances and action adventure stories. This kind of variation may also have a gendered dimension, in that many written genres are either male or female-dominated. If you find differences between men and women in a sample of fiction where the male texts are mostly thrillers and the female texts are mostly romances, it can be hard to disentangle the effects of gender from those of genre.

In one study of the language of blogs, the researchers found what appeared to be differences between male and female bloggers; but on closer inspection they turned out to be more closely related to the distinction between ‘diary’ blogs, containing the author’s personal reflections, and ‘filter’ or content-sharing blogs, where the author comments on the links s/he recommends. This looked like a gender difference because more women in the sample produced diary blogs, and more men produced content-sharing blogs. Of course that in itself is a gender difference; but it’s not a gender difference in writing style, it’s a gendered preference for different kinds of blogs.

The blog study was partly inspired by some research from the early 2000s which claimed to have found a way to determine an unknown writer’s sex with 80% accuracy. The researchers took a 25 million word chunk of the British National Corpus and counted the frequency of a large number of linguistic features, looking for the features whose relative frequency most reliably distinguished male from female-authored texts. They found that some of the best discriminators were

  • personal pronouns (especially forms of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘she’)
  • the articles ‘the’ and ‘a’
  • quantifying expressions like ‘a lot of’ and ‘fifty-seven’
  • phrases containing ‘of’, like ‘a shelf of books’.

Higher frequencies of pronouns correlated with female authorship, while higher frequencies of articles, numerals and ‘of’ phrases correlated with male authorship.

You’re probably thinking: but what does it mean, and why does it matter, if women use more pronouns and men use more articles? When someone claims that women ‘avoid bold declarative sentences’, or use more commonplace vocabulary or fewer subordinate clauses, we know why that’s meant to be significant. Anti-feminists can interpret it the way Jespersen did, as evidence of women’s intellectual limitations, while feminists can interpret it the way Hiatt did, as evidence that women’s potential has been limited by sexism. It’s not so obvious what deeper truth about men and women we might infer from differing frequencies of articles and pronouns.

But the researchers had a theory. They speculated that male writers were most interested in specifying the properties of objects precisely, while female writers were more interested in constructing a relationship with the reader. OK, it’s a stereotype (men are into things and women are into people), but it isn’t as blatantly sexist as ‘women’s writing lacks logic/boldness/force’. And at least these researchers, unlike Jespersen or Wolf, had solid statistical evidence for the pattern their theory was meant to explain.

Yet if we ask what these male and female ways of writing actually look like, the answer is a bit of an anti-climax. In one of their academic papers, the researchers illustrated the differences by comparing the opening paragraphs of two linguistics books, one written by a man and one written by a woman. The man’s book began: ‘The aim of this book is…’. The woman’s book, in stark contrast, began: ‘My aim in this book is…’. The difference is significant in the statistical sense (i.e., not just there by random chance), but it’s hard to invest it with the kind of deeper symbolic significance that a lot of people want gender differences to have.

But such is the popular fascination with its subject, this highly technical piece of research was soon repackaged in a more user-friendly form. Some enterprising person made an interactive program based on it, and put it up on a public website under the name ‘the Gender Genie’ (the site was later taken down, but something similar is available here). If you pasted some text into a box on its homepage, the Genie would guess whether the author was male or female. I monitored the site for three months, and also tracked a sample of blogs where people had posted a link to the Genie and commented on their own experiences with it.

What people invariably did with the Genie–in most cases it was the only thing they did–was paste in a sample of their own writing. Obviously they already knew if they were male or female, so presumably what they were trying to find out was whether their writing was gender-typical. And when the Genie told them it wasn’t (which happened frequently: while I was monitoring it its success rate never got above 68%), their reactions were instructive. Almost no one concluded that there was something wrong with the program, or with the basic idea of gendered writing styles. More commonly they fell to pondering why they, as individuals, did not match the profile for a ‘normal’ male or female writer.

Women who’d been misidentified as men often put this down to being ex-tomboys or geeks who had no truck with ‘girly’ things: none of them seemed offended by being told they wrote like men, and sometimes they appeared to be flattered. Men who were miscategorized as women, by contrast, more often expressed bafflement, annoyance or discomfort. They also got teased by other people in the comments: had they been writing poetry again? Were they secretly gay?

These contrasting responses underline the point that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. As Caroline Criado-Perez notes in her book Do It Like A Woman, to do something ‘like a woman’ usually means to do it badly, or less well than a man would do it. It’s your basic deficit model, in which men set the standard of excellence and whatever women do is somehow deficient, weak and inferior.

Women’s writing, on the face of things, is not an obvious candidate for this treatment. If we consider writing as a basic skill, it’s one on which girls outperform boys from an early age, and if we consider it as an art, it’s one that women have excelled in for centuries. And yet the idea has persisted that men do it better. Only yesterday, I heard a male writer on the radio explaining why he preferred to read other male writers: one of the reasons he gave was that men’s writing gets to the point (while women’s by implication beats endlessly about the bush). Had he ever, I wondered, opened Finnegan’s Wake, or any of the novels of Henry James?

But that question is a bit of a red herring. When someone voices a general objection to women’s writing, you can be pretty sure that what they really object to isn’t the writing part, it’s the women part. And if that’s the problem, you can’t solve it by tweaking your prose style. There is, though, one time-honoured solution, used by writers from the Brontes to J.K. Rowling: don’t let anyone know you’re a woman. Write under a male pen-name, or use your initials, and don’t appear in public until your talent has been acknowledged and your gender no longer matters.

But won’t your writing style give the game away? Well, if you’re J.K. Rowling posing as ‘Robert Galbraith’, a statistical comparison between ‘his’ style and an authenticated sample of yours will show that you’re J.K. Rowling. But it’s a different matter if you’re an unknown woman pretending to be an unknown man.

When the writer Catherine Nichols was looking for a literary agent, she put this to the test by sending out exactly the same manuscript under her own name and a fictional male name. She found that what readers said about her language depended on whose work they believed they were reading. Whereas Catherine’s sentences were described as ‘lyrical’, those of her alter-ego ‘George’ were ‘well-constructed’. It was ‘George’ whose writing was more positively received: with seventeen expressions of interest to Catherine’s two, he was, as Nichols drily observes, ‘eight and a half times more successful than me at writing the same book’.

Nichols’s experience suggests that what causes writing to be perceived as ‘male’ or female’ may have less to do with the objective characteristics of the language a writer uses, and more to do with the tendency of readers to select and interpret data in a way that reflects their expectations. As Carol Ohmann put it in an article about the reception of Wuthering Heights (a novel whose language suggested to one reviewer that its author ‘Ellis Bell’ (aka Emily Bronte) might be ‘a rough sailor’):

There is a considerable correlation between what readers assume or know the sex of the writer to be, and what they actually see or neglect to see in ‘his’ or her work.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. It’s not easy to persuade people of the virtues of a ‘female style’, but it’s even harder to convince them that in reality, there’s no such thing.

A rabid feminist writes…

Last week, the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan asked:

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?

The Oxford dictionary he was talking about was the one that comes with Apple devices (Macs, i-Pads, i-Phones), and his question was about the examples that follow the definition of a word and illustrate its use in practice. The ones he reproduced included the phrase ‘a rabid feminist’ illustrating the metaphorical usage of ‘rabid’; the sentence ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’ exemplifying the use of the term ‘psyche’; and a series of examples featuring women and female voices in entries for ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ and ‘nagging’. He also reproduced entries for the words ‘doctor’ and ‘research’ where the examples referred to doctors/researchers as ‘he’.

The point of this intervention was not just to criticise a few specific entries, but rather to draw attention to a pattern of sexist stereotyping in the dictionary’s illustrative examples. But when Oman-Reagan tweeted to Oxford Dictionaries, citing the ‘rabid feminist’ example, whoever was running their Twitter account that day chose not to acknowledge the deeper point. Instead he was told that (a) the ‘rabid feminist’ example was authentic, and (b) that ‘rabid’ isn’t necessarily a negative term. In the ensuing arguments (first on Twitter and then in lengthier pieces like this and this) the main issue became whether Oxford was endorsing a view of feminists as mad fanatics, and then compounding the offence with its dismissive responses to criticism.

Eventually Oxford apologized for its ‘flippant’ tweets, and promised to review the example in the ‘rabid’ entry, noting that in its corpus (the collection of texts which examples are drawn from) the commonest words found alongside ‘rabid’ are actually ‘fan’ and ‘supporter’. In one way that’s a positive outcome, but in another it’s frustratingly limited: revising a single entry which has been criticized for overt political bias does not address the much larger problem of covert sexism in the dictionary as a whole.

I use the word ‘covert’ for two reasons: first, because most of the sexist examples are incidental, appearing in entries for words which are not specifically ‘about’ women; and second, because much of the sexism will remain invisible if you only look at single entries in isolation. There’s nothing obviously sexist about an entry for ‘research’ where the example sentence uses the pronoun ‘he’; what’s covertly sexist is if there’s a systematic preference for ‘he’ over ‘she’ in all the entries for words denoting intellectual pursuits. The effect is cumulative, and arguably all the more insidious because we’re unlikely to be conscious of the pattern that produces it. This point rather got lost in the debate on ‘rabid feminist’. Oxford was held to account for that particular example, but not for the more systematic bias that Oman-Reagan had detected.

He isn’t by any means the first to have detected it. Feminists who study dictionaries have been complaining about the sexist example problem for decades. I discussed it myself in an earlier post, taking examples from a foreign language learners’ dictionary where the entry for ‘slip’ was illustrated with ‘he slipped on his shoes’ and ‘she slipped off her dress’, while ‘mop’ had men mopping their brows and women mopping floors. Once you’ve become aware of this pattern, you soon start to notice how pervasive it is. It’s not just a problem in one publisher’s products or one type of dictionary.

But whenever it’s pointed out, the dictionary-makers have a tendency to respond in the way Oxford responded to Oman-Reagan. Their examples, they say, are authentic: every phrase or sentence used to illustrate every entry was actually written by a real person in a real context. Dictionaries just describe usage, they don’t judge it, and they certainly don’t censor it. So, don’t shoot the messenger: don’t accuse lexicographers of sexism when they’re only documenting the sexism that exists in the wider world.

Fair point, or lame excuse? I’d say, a bit of both, but more the latter than the former. As Tom Freeman remarked on his Stroppy Editor blog, ‘even if a sentence isn’t theirs, they’ve still made the decision to use it’. And they can’t really argue that they didn’t have other options. The illustrative examples used in contemporary dictionaries come from very large collections of texts—Oxford’s corpus contains over two and a half billion words—so there isn’t a shortage of authentic examples to choose from. In some cases the argument might be made that a sexist example captures something significant about the usage of a word. We might suspect that ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’, for instance, are more often used about women than men. But in most cases it’s neither necessary nor illuminating to reproduce sexist stereotypes.

There’s also something a bit disingenuous about the protestations of dictionary makers that their products simply reflect the world around them. For the average user looking something up on their i-Phone, the dictionary isn’t seen as a neutral document, but as an authority on the existence, meaning, spelling and use of words—a view its publishers are happy to exploit when they use words like ‘authoritative’ in their advertising. It follows, as Tom Freeman observed, that

Dictionaries do help to set the cultural tone, whether they intend to or not. Their job is to describe the language neutrally but beyond that they should also be aware of how they come across. For example, I have a battered Oxford dictionary from 1969 on my shelf. It defines “jazz” as “syncopated music, & dance, of U.S. Negro origin”. Today, the Oxford website says jazz is “of black American origin”.

As this example suggests, there are areas of usage where the editors of dictionaries are anxious not to come across as culturally insensitive. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (begun in the late 19th century and completed in the early 20th), contained numerous definitions and examples which would now be considered horrendously racist—and not only because they used words like ‘Negro’ (which, though offensive today, was regarded as a polite term in 1969). A famous example is the original entry for ‘canoe’, which distinguished between the type used by white people for sport and leisure, and the more ‘primitive’ type used by ‘savages’ as a mode of transport. This kind of thing has been weeded out during the ongoing process of revising the OED. But the sexism displayed in entries like the ones Michael Oman-Reagan reproduced does not seem to have been targeted in the same way.

Why is that? Partly, it may be because sexist examples are distributed in a different way from racist ones. Whereas racism tends to be concentrated in entries for words that relate directly to particular groups and cultures (like ‘jazz’ or ‘canoe’), sexism is an incidental feature of a much wider range of entries. To deal with it systematically, you’d not only have to get rid of the obvious stereotypes, you’d also have to look at the overall balance of your examples—for instance, check that you had roughly equal numbers with ‘she’ and ‘he’, distributed in a non-stereotypical way. Precisely because it’s so pervasive, eliminating sexism would be a major undertaking.

But I can’t help wondering if there’s a more basic problem here: most people just aren’t that offended by sexism—or at least, by the low-level sexism of clichés like ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’. It’s a bit like the treatment of sexist verbal abuse in schools or football grounds, which is often talked about as if it were a different thing from the racist or homophobic equivalent: it gets put under the heading of ‘banter’, and women who complain are seen as humourless and over-sensitive.

The dismissive tweets for which Oxford later apologized were very much in that tradition. Their tone suggested that whoever wrote them did not feel obliged to take complaints of sexism seriously, and did not expect that stance to attract criticism. On this occasion the negative reaction prompted a climbdown–an apology for flippancy and a promise to look again at the example people had objected to. But if we want to see the problem of sexism addressed in a less piecemeal way, we’re going to have to keep sending the message that we don’t think it’s trivial or a joke. Become, in short, a bit less tolerant and a bit more rabid.

It’s beginning to smell a lot like bullshit…

In my last two posts of 2015 I’m going to tap into the seasonal zeitgeist and review some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the year. In the second of these round-ups I will emulate some of the great linguistic institutions of our time, such as the American Dialect Society and the publishers of major dictionaries, by nominating my Words of the Year. But first, I return to what has proved to be one of this blog’s most popular subjects: bullshit.

Sexist bullshit about language was ubiquitous in 2015. When I started this blog, in mid-May, the people of Britain had just endured almost two months of what you might call the ‘soft’ variety, in which women’s allegedly superior communication skills are ‘celebrated’ in an endless string of patronizing stereotypes. The objects of this treatment were three female politicians who had led their parties into the General Election—Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood. Following their appearance in the first set of nationwide TV election debates ever to feature anyone with two X chromosomes, these women were repeatedly said to have shown us what civilized political discussion looks like: no shouting, interrupting, talking over your opponents or trading personal insults. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, the women ‘brought a measure of dignity to an occasion that could have descended into chaos and rancour’.

This assessment may have been gallant, but it was also inaccurate, as I discovered when my fellow-linguist Sylvia Shaw and I actually analysed the TV debates for a forthcoming book about language and gender in the General Election. When the book comes out I’ll post about our findings in more detail. But let’s just say that the women’s behaviour didn’t match what we read about it in the papers.

Nicola Sturgeon was, on many measures, the most combative of the seven party leaders who took part in the debates. She interrupted more often than anyone else except Nigel Farage, and she was a master of the withering put-down. Sometimes her target was Farage, who was treated as fair game by everyone (the first leader to round on him was Leanne Wood), but she also got in some digs at Cameron and Clegg, and she was relentless in her goading—there’s really no other word for it—of Ed Miliband.

Sturgeon is a skilled exponent of the classic, adversarial style of political debate: in other words, she can beat the men at what’s supposed to be their own game. But instead of giving her credit for that, the commentators wittered on about how warm and empathetic women politicians are, how unconcerned with scoring points and getting into heated arguments.

That might sound like a compliment, and it might even be intended as one, but it’s only the other side of the same coin that gets women the media don’t like labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’. Of course women shouldn’t have to behave exactly like men to be accepted in positions of power, but nor should they have to conform to stereotypical notions of ‘feminine’ linguistic behaviour. Rather than praising them for civilizing men’s conversations, we should let women participate in those conversations on their own terms, as men’s equals. Which is pretty much what Nicola Sturgeon did: if I were handing out awards, she’d be my Woman Speaker of the Year.

Summer arrived in June, and with it came news that women weren’t such great communicators after all. (Bullshit does not have to be internally consistent.) There was a spate of articles about what’s wrong with women’s speech, and what they need to do to fix it if they expect people to take them seriously. Stop saying ‘just’ all the time!  Quit apologising! Cut out the uptalk and the vocal fry!

These pieces purported to be feminist (one, written by Naomi Wolf, was framed as a plea to the most ‘empowered’ generation of women in history not to throw it all away in a bid to sound like Kim Kardashian). But as I pointed out in a series of posts (see here, here and here), what they actually did was continue a long tradition of sermonizing on the general theme ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who’d had enough of this finger-wagging dressed up as ‘empowerment’. Collectively the three pieces I wrote on this subject got nearly a quarter of a million page-views, and throughout July and August there was a steady stream of other blog posts and articles making similar points (this satirical take headed ’13 tips on how to speak while female’ was one of my favourites).

By December, even Business Insider—the publication responsible for publicizing the ‘stop saying just’ article that first prompted me to call bullshit—ran a piece with the uncompromising title ‘’There’s a war on the way women talk–and it needs to end’. I don’t suppose that will put an end to it, but it’s encouraging to see so many women talking back. ‘Next year I will ignore anyone who tells me to change the way I speak’ would make an excellent feminist new year’s resolution.

But I don’t want to give the misandrist impression that the field of sexist bullshit this year was totally dominated by women. They did make a strong showing in the ‘empowering you by telling you you’re shit’ subcategory, but in the ‘common or garden misogyny’ division the most outstanding performances came from men.

A particularly impressive contribution came from the cartoonist Scott Adams, who complained in the course of a lengthy rant about how tough life is for men in ‘female-dominated’ western societies that

Women have made an issue of the fact that men talk over women in meetings. In my experience, that’s true. But for full context, I interrupt anyone who talks too long without adding enough value. If most of my victims turn out to be women, I am still assumed to be the problem in this situation, not the talkers. The alternative interpretation of the situation — that women are more verbal than men — is never…

I’m afraid I’ll have to interrupt Adams there, as his arrogant mansplainy whining isn’t adding enough value to this discussion. He evidently forgot to read my post ‘Why women talk less’, which contains links to numerous studies demonstrating that in mixed-sex groups it’s men who are ‘more verbal’ than women.

That point also escaped another of the year’s most notable linguistic misogynists, the guy whose family Christmas card showed his wife and young daughters tied up with fairy lights and gagged with festive green duct tape, while he held up a blackboard bearing the message ‘Peace on Earth’. (You probably saw it, since it went viral on social media, but even if it’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, I refuse to link to a degrading image of children who cannot possibly have given informed consent to its public circulation.)

In his essay ‘On Bullshit’,  the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt suggests that the defining characteristic of bullshit is its complete indifference to questions of truth and falsehood. The true bullshitter isn’t deterred by anxiety about getting things wrong:

He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

One of my aims when I started this blog was to make this slightly harder to get away with. Sexist bullshit is difficult to kill (it has, after all, been around for centuries), but it doesn’t have to go undetected and unchallenged. Or in some cases, unlaughed at.

I’ve done what I can for this year; but I’ll be back for more (because there will be more) in 2016.