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Post date: Apr 27, 2012 4:7:11 AM

When language engenders gender inequality

The Straits Times (27 April 2012)

By Geraint Wong

GENDER differences have been in the news lately.

First, my colleague Akshita Nanda highlighted how society has different expectations of men and women when it comes to managing work and family.

Then, in last week's issue of Urban featuring make-up for men, editor Tee Hun Ching wrote about the differences between what men and women could not live without.

To be sure, the battle for equality of the sexes has made great progress over the decades. But even today, most people will admit that much more can be done. One area that needs to be tackled is language.

An April 16 entry on the Guardian's Mind Your Language blog, Women And Men Are Still Unequal - Even When They Are Dead, notes that newspapers are much more likely to use 'widow' to refer to the wife of a dead man than to use 'widower' to refer to the husband of a dead woman.

Various British newspapers had a ratio of between six and 15 widow references to one widower reference in the past year. The discrepancy is similar in this newspaper, which had 1,821 instances of 'widow' against just 273 instances of 'widower' in the past 10 years. The blogpost concludes that this variance reinforces 'outdated attitudes towards women and men'.

Admittedly, the higher frequency of 'widow' can be explained by demographics - men, after all, have a shorter life expectancy than women. But even in everyday speech, people are far more likely to say 'his widow' when a man dies than to say 'her widower' when a woman dies.

Another domain that still sees vestiges of such antiquated attitudes is that of occupations. In the past, when each profession was principally the preserve of one sex, people saw the need to distinguish between a manager and a manageress, or between an author and an authoress, and to specify a professional's sex when it was unexpected - as in 'lady doctor' and 'male nurse'.

Mercifully, most of these awful terms have been consigned to the dung heap of linguistic history. But a few have overstayed their welcome. So 'actress', 'comedienne', 'stewardess' and 'waitress' still crop up in news reports.

Granted, 'actress' is convenient for naming film and theatre awards, which usually honour male and female thespians separately.

But surely the sex of someone who performs comedies, serves passengers or waits tables can be indicated without the involvement of such outmoded words. The English suffixes '-er', '-or' and '-ian' are perfectly capable of denoting people of both sexes - as any writer, editor or physician will tell you.

Finally, the use of titles such as 'Mr', 'Mrs' and 'Miss' reveals quite a bit about gender inequality in society.

The common argument is that a man gets away with a simple 'Mr' that does not divulge his marital status, whereas things are somewhat trickier for a woman.

Of course, the English language has provided a way out with the title 'Ms', the feminine equivalent of 'Mr'. But here in Singapore, as soon as a woman is married, government departments immediately prefix the aunty-sounding 'Madam' to her maiden name, even if she is all of 20 years old.

This use of 'Madam' as a title is decidedly old-school and is, moreover, restricted to this region. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, 'Mrs' or 'Ms' is used instead. It is time the authorities here kept abreast of linguistic developments.

On another note, this newspaper's Forum page has the policy of appending the title 'Miss', 'Ms', 'Mrs' or 'Madam' in brackets to a female letter writer's name - as a practical tool to help repliers refer to letter writers correctly.

The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University had a similar practice in the past. On their degree scrolls, female graduates used to have their names prefixed with 'Miss' (or 'Madam', presumably, if they were married), whereas male graduates were accorded no corresponding honour.

The universities have since done away with titles altogether - and just as well, for both sexes should be given equal treatment: either use titles for all or do not use them at all.

I am not advocating that we overhaul the language to purge it of all traces of gender inequality. Some have tried before to make bold moves that betrayed profound linguistic ignorance - such as the coinage of the ridiculous word 'herstory' as a feminine counterpart to 'history' - with hardly any success, thankfully.

Rather, let's use the resources that English already has - for example, 'they' as a gender-neutral third- person singular pronoun, which, far from being ungrammatical, actually dates back to the 16th century and is now becoming increasingly common.

Gender differences will always remain, even in language. But we can each do our part to be careful in our choice of words and phrases so that we do not sideline either gender - or any other group in society, for that matter.