‘Men At Work’: How Gendered Language Affects Our Kids

Understanding the effects of gendered language on children is important because occupational aspirations develop in elementary school.

As I turned onto my street a few weeks ago, I saw a bright orange, diamond-shaped sign that said, “Men Working.” I passed by the crew of five. Were any women working? No. And why would they be? It’s clearly labeled that men will repair the street. So why would a girl, my 8-year-old daughter, for example, think that this is work she’s suited for once she’s seen this sign?

I try to be careful to use gender-neutral names for professions, for example, firefighter, police officer, and mail carrier. Why should girls be conditioned to feel they aren’t able to work in these fields?

I also try not to use the word “guys” to refer to a group of kids of mixed gender, although I hear other parents and teachers do this all the time—even referring to a group of only girls as “guys.” Plenty of other terms can describe a mixed-gender group: “kids,” “boys and girls,” “students,” “this group.” I sometimes like to use the word “crew” for a group of kids or “gang” if they’re doing something questionable.

When I hear someone referring to a mixed group of kids as “guys,” it feels to me as if the girls in the group are so irrelevant that the speaker doesn’t even need to acknowledge them. I don’t actually think any parent or educator purposefully wants to belittle girls by not recognizing them as part of a group. But this non-admission of girls is subconsciously embedded into the thinking and language of this patriarchal culture.

I have thought that maybe my point of view is too rigid. After all, language constantly evolves—not to mention the evolution of the concept of gender. A secondary definition of “guy” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is “person.” And it further says, “used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex.” But the principle definition of “guy” is “man, fellow.” So why is the masculine plural the default for the group? If you called to that same mixed group of kids with a “Hey, girls!” that would be seen as a joke or an insult.

In fact, research backs up my gut feeling about the detriment of using the masculine plural to describe a group of mixed gender. A 2015 paper about the effect of gender-fair job descriptions on children’s perceptions of occupations by Dries Vervecken and Bettina Hannover in Social Psychology describes how in gendered languages (such as French or German, which provide both feminine and masculine forms of most nouns), it’s common to use the masculine plural job title for a group of mixed or unknown gender. The authors then point out that psycholinguistic research consistently shows that this practice triggers associations of the work being for men.

Similarly, in an article on sexist job titles by Sylvia Cutler on the Brigham Young University website, English professor Delys Snyder references other relevant research cited in a 2002 article in Child Development called “Language at Work: Children’s Gendered Interpretations of Occupational Titles.” After given job titles with gender marks (for example, with “man” on the end as in “businessman” or “ess” at the end as in “stewardess”), English-speaking children were asked to draw or talk about the person who does the job. For the gendered job titles, they depicted a worker that matched the gendered word.

On the other hand, a 2015 paper on gender-fair language by Vervecken and colleagues in Frontiers in Psychology describes studies that have shown that when researchers present elementary school children who speak a gendered language with pair forms that explicitly refer to both male and female jobholders—instead of giving them only the masculine plural of the job title as usual—they are more likely to envision women workers in the field and to believe that women can find success in the field.

Understanding the effects of gendered language on children is important because, according to Vervecken’s Social Psychology article, occupational aspirations develop in elementary school, and these predict educational and professional choices in later years. So it seems as though it behooves us to carefully choose gender-inclusive language when we address and speak with young children.

Later during the same week that I saw the male work crew, I drove past two of the same types of temporary signs in a neighboring town. One said, “Tree Work Ahead,” and the other said, “Work Zone.” It made me think, how difficult would it be to open up the language and create a non-gendered space? How would it change the expectations of and horizons for girls (and boys) if the language reflected open possibilities in every sphere? What would it take to get every town and school to embrace this approach?

I don’t know the answers, but for starters, in my house, we refer to the carpenter, plumber, and electrician as “he or she” before a visit. We say, for example, “He or she will be here at 11.” And then at noon, we say, “He or she is already an hour late.” My daughter likes to learn about circuits, so who knows, maybe someday she’ll be that late electrician.

Lauren Schiffman is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Bay Area. She often thinks and writes about education, the environment, health issues, and the arts.

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