Stereotypes in language
Stereotypes about gender often take one of two forms. One assumes all members of a category (such as a profession) share a gender, for example, the assumption that all company directors are men and all secretaries are women. The other is assuming that all members of a gender share a characteristic, for example, believing that all women love to shop or that “boys don’t cry”.
These stereotypes hurt people of all genders by placing expectations on what people should be.
Disclaimer: This article focuses on English. Similar stereotypes might be present in your own language as well. Let us know how and we are happy to create articles for different languages as well.
Where can you come across gender stereotypes in language?
By using gendered pronouns (i.e. “… he will catch the disc” - if it is a general explanation)
Adding irrelevant information about gender in a description of an individual.
Assigning gender to inanimate objects (for example, “man defence”)
Using gender stereotypes to describe objects, activities or events.
Describing people of different genders using different adjectives (descriptive words).
Perpetuating stereotypes in non-verbal communication, such as images and symbols.
How to avoid stereotypes?
Professions and occupations are often subject to gender stereotypes. Take special care to avoid stereotypes when talking about people’s occupations!
Avoid gendered pronouns (he or she) when the person’s gender is unknown + Do not rely on “he/him/man” when talking about an individual in the abstract – this excludes women and non-binary people from the conversation.
The number of years an electrician will spend training depends on what country he is from.
The number of years an electrician will spend training depends on what country they are from.
Every nurse should take care of her own uniform and cover the expense herself.
Every nurse should take care of his or her own uniform and cover the expense themselves.
Avoid irrelevant information about gender
Chairman Moni Patel works closely with the chairman of the player's committee Matthieu Dubios to plan events.
The chair Moni Patel works closely with the chair/chairperson of the player’s committee Matthieu Dubois to plan events.
Priti is a career woman*.
Priti is focused on her career.
Avoid gendered stereotypes as descriptive terms
You throw like a girl.
You do not throw well.*
*This is the implied usage of the phrase ‘like a girl’ in English to do something badly or in a silly or weak manner. Some campaigners are trying to reclaim this phrase to show the positive side of being ‘like a girl!’.
The team taking part in the charity obstacle course who were scared of the cold water had to man up and dive in at the first obstacle.
The team taking part in the charity obstacle course who were scared of the cold water had to be tough and dive in at the first obstacle.
Using different adjectives for women and men
These are words in English that are supposed to be equivalent, but actually, the female versions of the words have gained negative connotations over the years. You should think carefully about the connotations of words before using them. For example, consider:
governor - governess
master - mistress
patron - matron
sir - madam
bachelor - spinster
host - hostess
Adjectives with gender connotations to avoid
Adjectives commonly used for women (derogatory)
Bossy or pushy
Having sexual confidence –no male equivalent
Emotional or hormonal
Passionate, enthusiastic, empathetic
Lacking sexual responsiveness –no male equivalent
Dowdy and old fashioned
High pitched, grating voice
Avoid using stereotypical images
We communicate ideas about the world not only through language but also through the images we choose to use. A piece of communication is gender-discriminatory if the people within the images are only depicted in stereotypical ways (i.e. female homemakers, male builders).
Ensure that the images you use in your communication material do not reinforce gender stereotypes by including a broad mix of people in different environments.
Avoid using stereotypical images | European Institute for Gender Equality (europa.eu)