"That's not what I meant!" - Gender bias in language

Photography: Soren Astrup Jorgensen

Photography: Soren Astrup Jorgensen

Written by Maja Schmitt

At work, I am ‘the feminist’. People know, that bringing up sexism and gender inequalities are the equivalent to the provocative finger on the trigger, one inadequate comment – I shoot. I jump. I race to the dispute like Usain Bolt in his last competition. Like Ashley Henderson in the Olympics in 2018, but if I used her as an analogy fewer would get it. The proof is in the pudding.

Let me preface by saying that I don’t wait around for someone to push my buttons so I can react. I am not an angry feminist, although the female-identifying collective have every right to be upset, to be frustrated, to be angry – but that’s not the point I want to make today.

I work in Amsterdam in an equal opportunity environment… or so they say.

I am a proof-reader. I read copy that is published on websites of small businesses across Europe with the intention to increase their digital exposure. SEO. Keywords. Curated content that converts visitors into customers. The whole shebang. Today, I came across the word ‘manpower’ on a website of a female lawyer, describing her qualifications and ambition in her field. The term ‘manpower’ is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘a man of action’ [among others]. The website has gone live. The client, a woman, approved this terminology. Reading it made me emotional, it made me upset, I immediately wanted to change it.

I wasn’t allowed; I was shut down by my boss. ‘Why?’, I ask, explaining my confusion – the customer is a woman, shouldn’t it be ‘female force’? Shouldn’t it be another adjective, another noun, another descriptive term for her abilities to do her job well without implying outdated gender stereotypes? Why do we allow, or tolerate for that matter, gender-based vocabulary in today’s society, in an office environment where we agree that gender and sexuality are to be seen on a spectrum rather than participating in the act of filing individuals into categories?

Apparently, ‘it sounds more professional’ this way. And boy was that the last twitch that fired off that trigger finger of mine. An impulsive and innocent, yet ignorant response to a question loaded with sheer frustration at inequality. Needless to say, my boss and I got into an argument. This isn’t to say that he didn’t understand where I was coming from, he knew the depths of the hole he had dug himself before I had even finished my response, yet his underlying gender bias was blatantly obvious the very second that those words came out.

Sexism in the workplace goes further than making inappropriate comments about one’s appearance or capabilities – it is a crucial factor to how we respect our colleagues, our clients, the people we report to. This comment was out of line.

I changed it without approval. My beliefs mean more to me than antiquated rules. I will happily continue to be ‘the relentless, angry feminist’ at work, because even if others don’t notice the subtle ways that language controls our gender bias – I do. It is a form of bullying, of belittlement, of discrimination. Let’s be more careful with what we say. Let’s be more inclusive with the words we choose to speak. Let’s be kind, let’s empower, let’s allow each other to strive without stigma. Here’s to hoping.

Sarah Fritz