Maria Pawlowska wonders why our language is dominated by a presumption of white maleness.
I’ve recently had the dubious pleasure if having to undergo minor surgery. I wasn’t too excited about the whole thing, and particularly not about the local anesthetic, which as my GP kindly warned—was “extremely” painful. As a way of managing my pre-operative anxiety, I googled the surgery where my offending lip was to go under the knife. I clicked the “doctors” link and quickly located the pleasant North-African surgeon who was going to make me hurt real badly a few days later.
But after looking at the website for a few moments, I no longer cared so much about my doctor but was wondering, instead, why only female doctors have a “Mrs.” or “Miss” in parentheses next to their names (and no, none of the male doctors had gender obvious names!). There were no pictures on the website either. A “Dr.” simply signified a male doctor, and a “Dr.” with a qualifier identified the females. I’m not even going to go into the ridiculous British tradition of identifying all women by their marital status on everything from doctor’s notes to credit cards, but I will limit myself to ranting about the identification of their gender in general.
I’ve recently been re-reading some of Gloria Steinem’s classical essays and—in a way—I find it pretty awful how so much of what she had written about is still relevant decades later. The “white male” as default is one of these issues. It seems that the basic model for “doctor” is still male and so, even in my 21st-century, central London surgery, it’s the female doctors who need their gender identified as a deviation from the norm. In the medical arena, there’s one exception: nurses. Unless “male” precedes nurse, the assumption is the person in question is female. It’s actually not a coincidence that nurses, who as a prominent (male) British nephrologist recently told me, “are there to follow my orders,” are a predominantly female.
And this “white male unless stated otherwise” policy goes way beyond medicine. It’s just about everywhere you look. A white man who writes books is a writer and will be displayed in the “fiction” part of the bookstore. An Afro-American female is likely to be described as a “woman writer” or an “African-American writer,” and her books are likely to be displayed in “African-American literature” or “women’s writing.”
Of course, there are plenty of women who proudly stand in the “fiction” part of the bookstore next to their male counterparts. But have you ever heard about “male writing?” Or “dude flicks” for that matter? They’re just simply called books and novels if they’re for men and by men. The same goes for sports: he’s a basketball player, but she’s a female basketball player. And for academia: there are professors and female professors. The first being a white male, most likely sporting a beard and thick-framed glasses, and the latter being a somewhat unkempt, sexless creature who is nowhere near as likely to exude natural authority and wisdom. (Use Google images if you don’t believe me.)
This may seem a non-issue to some, but language isn’t just a means of getting information across. It’s a tool we use to create our mental frameworks. I’m Polish. Slavic languages are different than English in that nouns have genders, and the gender of a word can usually be discerned from the last syllable. So for example, a male director is “dyrektor,” and a female director should theoretically be called “dyrektorka.” (Notice the feminine “ka” at the end of the word.) I say “should” because people really don’t like doing it. There is a huge backlash against it, accusing feminists of creating problems when they ask that the correct terms be used. Just so that you’re clear on that: some of my fellow compatriots think that arguing for the use of gender-appropriate terms is “argumentative and needlessly aggressive.”
So why is it still OK to assume that someone is male until specified otherwise? And how come there is such a strong insistence on using male endings? Well, quite simply, language is a powerful tool; there is a reason why people can (in some countries, at least) be convicted of hate crimes simply by being very vocally racist or homophobic. Our words create reality as they’re describing it. Men have dominated just about every sphere of public life for the best part of recorded history, hence the assumption of “maleness” for a vast majority of professions.
But now we have female doctors, lawyers, professors, and presidents. In fact, we have so many of them (even in heavily male-dominated areas like the physical sciences) that it’s no longer fair, or correct, to assume that the person in question is male. So how about we just collectively get over gender-stereotyping truck drivers, cardiologists, and pre-school teachers? I’m not saying we should aim to stop using gender qualifiers right this second. But it might not be a bad idea to pause and ask yourself why you think you need to specify that the doctor is female and the teacher is male. Is it important? Or is it just not exactly what you would expect?
—Photo Horia Varlan/Flickr