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Chairs, Tables, and Other Systemic Sexism in the Workplace

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

By: Kate Wallace

Kate Wallace is a student at Western University, studying Media, Information, and Technoculture. She is passionate about feminism and seeks to use the rapid development of technology to aid disadvantage communities, specifically women.

I work as an intern at an executive head hunting firm, and usually sift through around 20-30 resumes daily. Recently, I was asked to research and update the current roles of clients in our system from a number of years ago. It had been two, five, 10 years since some of their profiles were last built out, and I noticed that many of these candidates had rapidly advanced in their careers and currently lead corporate and nonprofit boards. Most of the roles of the ~then CEO, now Chairman~ executives were easy to input into our database, but about halfway through the list I hit a snag. When I encountered a woman in the role, it didn’t make sense to input her position as “Chairman”. Disclaimer: there were significantly more men placed in this role (and executive roles, and roles in general…) than women, but we already know about that problem, so I’m just going to save that for another article. Fortunately for efficiency but unfortunately for my feminist agenda, our database only has drop-down options so I had no other choice but to select an option that just didn’t sit right. Being the stubborn and patriarchy-loathing individual I am, of course I had to bring this injustice to my boss whom was wonderfully patient with my rant on gender-equality. (Disclaimer #2: it is always intimidating to bring up an issue with a superior, even when they are as incredible as my boss is. Tip: channel the energy from the woman in the Secret commercial who builds up the courage to ask for equal pay.)

Question: So, why was I so put off by this? Does this even matter?

Answer: Yes. So. Much.

Language is a powerful tool. Word choice can inspire, manipulate, persuade, and set examples. Due to the development and structure of language, prominent past inequality is embedded in the words and phrases that we use today. Excluding derogatory terms often used against minorities, most discourse is subtle in its use to maintain power. This is evident in terms of race, sexual orientation, disablement and so on, but I want to explore its effect on gender.

The term androcentrism refers to “the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing a masculine point of view at the center of one's world view, culture, and history, thereby culturally marginalizing femininity” – it works to perpetuate male power. Dale Spender, an Australian linguist, argues that the English language is based on patriarchal traditions which carry through to impact gender identity and its role within the labour market (17, 1980). Words matter; discourse and cultural values influence each other. There is a clear correlation between the values of society and the words used to reflect its importance, for example, look at how Inuit communities have over 50 words to describe snow (Robsen 2013) and North Americans have endless synonyms and models of cars.

Borrowing from the geniusness* of Simone de Beauvoir, strictly looking at language, men are considered to be the “normal” human, but secondarily, there are women. Even when looking at the nouns in this article, it is clear that man and male appear in every official feminine term. The etymology of the word “woman” comes from the Old English of “wifmann”, “wif” meaning wife and “mann” meaning person. With androcentric language, man does not necessarily refer to anything masculine, but encompasses all of humanity. It is problematic that English uses male-favouring words to represent all citizens, such as phrases like ‘mankind’ and ‘everyman’, as it ostracizes femininity. Individuals are assumed male until proven female, which facilitates a “the Other” ideology within social and work cultures.

This, however, is not the case with every language. Although most languages are somehow organized in relation to gender, some impact inequality more than others. There are grammatical gender languages (French), natural gender languages (English), and genderless languages (Finnish). Studies have determined that associating male and female speech onto objects (such as ‘le’ and ‘la’ before masculine and feminine objects in French) changes the way people perceive their characteristics. In a study of global language and gender, researchers hypothesized that both grammatical gender and natural gender languages would contribute to lower gender equality in countries that spoke them (Prewitt-Freilino et. Al 2011). They investigated 140 countries, varying in type of gendered language spoken, referencing the Global Gender Gap Index to determine gender equality within a nation. Their research proved their hypothesis true; countries whose language was greatly influenced by gender tended to have lower gender equality. It is important to note that other factors affecting gender equality such as religious practices and government systems were appropriately considered to not skew the results. This case study confirms the correlation between language and its effect on gender norms and equality within culture.

Unfortunately there is not a lot that we can do about this component. It is common knowledge that most of the world has stemmed from a much harsher form of patriarchy than North America experiences now. However, it is easy to expedite a change in these practices at work. Returning to my Chairman dilemma, by assuming all board leaders are or should be male is clearly perpetuating bias when a) selecting, and b) trusting the competency of a board’s leader. A successful businessperson should not have to lose aspects of her femininity when selected for a powerful role. On the other hand, it should not be looked at as against the status quo when a woman is selected; therefore, “Chairwoman” only further instigates an intense binary. Creating gender-neutral and genderless titles is easy and more cohesive. Aligning with Spender’s research, continuing to refer to prestigious job titles with ‘man’ ingrained, or adding female suffixes such as ‘ess’ and ‘ette’ reiterate the previous ideology that women are out of place in work settings.

Why should we assume that an unknown speaker is male? More than 50% of the human population and more than 50% of human intelligence does not fall into this category.**Janet Holmes, a sociolinguist, explains that discourse indirectly codes meanings in gender through “association with particular roles, activities, traits, and stance” (2008, 478). She argues that masculinity is deemed regular within labour, and any other behaviours are looked at as disorderly.

Especially when taking into account the numerous other roadblocks that women face within the workforce every day, they should at least feel comfortable with their job title. Women should neither feel that it is ill-fitting (Chairman) nor spotlights their differences (Chairwoman). Though highlighting diversity is often beneficial in the workplace if done in a respectful manner, we need to be sure that it is established that both women and men are simply looked at as employees or management, and not just looked at as a gender. Terms such as “mankind”, “policeman”, and “waitress” are only encompassing of one gender, and that is an easy fix: humankind, police officer, waiter.

It is important to look at the big picture. If roles are assumed to be male, it will affect the amount of women who deserve to possess them. The smaller the population of women in the workforce and women in management positions are, the greater the feminization of poverty. It’s really not very hard to refer to people with gender-neutral greetings, and it goes a long way in not shrinking an individual down to only one component of themselves. Luckily, my boss agreed with this mindset, went into the code of our database, and changed the drop-down role “Chairman” to “Chair”.

*American journalist Liza Mundy discusses how geniusness is socially considered to be a “male trait”, which is especially concerning for women in the tech industry, because it “depends almost entirely on innate genius” (2017). It is important to encourage use of this word to be an adjective to describe any gendered intellect.

**Women live longer than men, which allows for a slightly greater population. As well, many people do not identify as a male or female, which alters the 50/50 binary.

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