Sexist Job Titles and the Influence of Language on Gender Stereotypes

BYU English professor Delys Snyder presented corpus research on sexist job titles at a Women’s Studies colloquium entitled, “A Corpus Study of the Changes in the Use of Sexist Job Titles over the Last Fifty Years.”

Snyder 1PROVO, Utah (Jan. 16, 2015)—“The doctor will see you now,” is a common expression in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Yet, why is surprise also a common expression when a doctor walks in and is a woman? English professor Delys Snyder identified changes made to sexist language in job titles over the last few decades and discussed stereotypes that occur due to perceptions formed by sexist language.

Snyder displayed job listings from a page of the Chicago Times from 1951 to show how jobs were originally separated by gender. In the ’50s and ’60s it was common to have one set of job listings categorized for men and the other for women, and job titles were often restricted to one gender. This was indicated in titles like grillman and salesman on job listings for men and laundress and stewardess on job listings for women.

“Because of the women’s movement and the second wave of feminism, fewer jobs are limited by gender today,” Snyder explained.

Snyder continued that when the world of work opened to women people wondered whether these titles were prescribing or describing the jobs they referred to. It raised the question as to whether or not the titles themselves communicated that women should not be doing those particular jobs.

Snyder acknowledged the nature in which these titles occur and how language creates limitations and stereotypes. “There are a lot of male-identified job titles but there are very few female-identified job titles,” she said. “Many of the female-identified words you find in the realm of family, home, and sex.”

She continued, “In changing the language, are you changing the way people see who could be in this job? Or, by changing who can be in this job, does that push people to change the language? It’s probably yes on both accounts, but it’s really hard to change the way people say things by decree.”

Snyder asked whether or not job titles with gendered elements really affect us, citing recent studies done to determine how sexist language encourages gender-biased stereotypes.

In one study a group of individuals were asked to read a story that contained the following sentences:

“The foreman reassured himself he had made the right decision,” and

“The foreman reassured herself she had made the right decision.”

Upon reading the latter sentence, participants would hit the female reflexive pronoun, stop, go back and read the sentence again, whereas with the former sentence participants would read straight through without any hesitation.

“The change in how people saw the word itself shows that when people see m-a-n they probably don’t expect woman,’” said Snyder, referring to the reactions participants exhibited upon seeing a female pronoun associated with a seemingly male job title. “That shows that job titles affect how we see jobs.”

Snyder also referenced a study that examined how children perceived job titles marked for gender as being appropriate for that specific gender.Snyder 2

“When children hear a job title that has a gender mark on it, like an e-s-s ending or an m-a-n ending, and you ask them to draw pictures or talk about who’s doing that job, they will pick the one that matches the gender of the word,” explained Snyder. “If we’re going to be fair in opening up the world of work to men and women, and make it possible for everybody, maybe our job titles should reflect that.”

Snyder continued by identifying possible changes to language that would make job titles more gender-neutral.

One example is to use gender-neutral words that already exist, replacing ‘fireman’ with ‘firefighter’ or stewardess with ‘flight attendant.’

Another way is to remove the female suffix from job titles altogether. For example, removing e-s-s from ‘actress’ to make it ‘actor’ or by replacing ‘waitress’ with ‘waiter.’ Snyder noted, however, that it gives the sense that the male version of the word is the norm.

One solution that is popular with European languages is to create a male and female version of a word, like chairman and chairwoman, to eliminate the notion that a job title is for one gender only.

However, Snyder explained that this approach also has its drawbacks in that the female version of a word often begins to develop inferior or negative connotations in society.

Snyder examined the use of different male and female words with the corpora. The words ‘master’ and ‘mistress,’ she said, both started out as well-respected words. Over time, however, the connotation of these words has changed.

“I got a master’s degree. If I had gotten a mistress’s degree, BYU would not have hired me,” joked Snyder.

Snyder asked, “Can people really legislate language change successfully? If we change the way we speak, does it change the way we think?”

She continued to explain that the way words change is not systematic or completely predictable, but that some changes can be legislated.

“It is really rare to have language change from impositions and decrees. The whole push of changing language to be less sexist is very interesting because this is not usually how language changes,” she said.

Snyder concluded, “It probably will change language because society has changed and people are pushing language to change with it.”

For more information on corpus research, contact Delys Snyder.

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)