Promoting equal career opportunities by using gender-neutral language
By Jacey Gibb, Distribution Manager
What’s in a word?
We might not always give our choice in words much consideration, but our language tends to shape the world around us.
In preparation for teaching a grade three class about occupations, I browsed through Google images and printed out some job flashcards. It wasn’t until later, when I was prepping the flashcards, that I realized how biased educational resources can be.
Out of 30 flashcards, almost half of them used gender-specific language, such as policeman, fireman, postman, and businessman. A couple of them were simply gender-specific on their own, like waiter. You could probably guess that the overwhelmingly majority of flashcards had men in the roles. “Teacher” and “Nurse” were the only jobs that were consistently female across the sets I’d printed out—but I’ll get to that a bit later.
How do you think the eight girls in my class would feel to have most occupations we learn about be represented, both textually and visually, as male-only jobs? Sure, there’s a chance they don’t register the bias; there’s a chance they will continue thinking they can pursue whatever career they want; but there’s also a chance that they do internalize what they’re seeing and reading.
Nobody’s going to be 100 per cent perfect when it comes to using gender neutral terms, and I’m not asking you to be, but I can ask you to start taking small steps, like having an awareness about your word choices, or doing a bit of research on what some alternatives are.
For example, later the same day I taught my occupations lesson, I was describing overfishing to the students and I used the term “fisherman.” Imagine my near-tears-of-joy when one student furrowed her brow and said, “Mr. Gibb, you just said fisherman!” I was filled with a combination of pride and uncertainty, as I was simultaneously proud that my lesson had stuck with them, but left unsure about what term to use. Fisherpeople? Fisherfolk?
Oddly enough, it’s humbling when students ask a question I don’t know the answer to. Later, I searched it up on the computer, and what do you know; “fisher” is a term used for a person who catches fish, either for their livelihood or recreationally. If it’s good enough for Merriam-Webster, it’s good enough for me.
While not directly related to gendered job titles, the stereotypes around which occupations are predominantly male or female can also be frustrating. Nurses and doctors are probably the biggest examples, in that most teaching resources I’ve encountered depict nurses as women and doctors as men.
In the United States, about 91 per cent of registered nurses are women, while about 65 per cent of physicians are men. Both fields are dominated by a different sex, but that in no way means we should perpetuate that. If anything, we need to be more diligent in telling children that they can pursue any career, regardless of that field’s current gender composition.
Children are walking, talking, often runny-nosed sponges, eager to soak up any knowledge they can get their hands on. They’re constantly learning from listening, observing, and eventually by doing. If kids grow up using terms that exclude their gender, the gender gaps that already exist will continue to grow, and future adults might miss out on a career they love simply because they grew up thinking it was meant for someone else.