Updated: Mar 15
Gender equality has long been an issue that pertains solely to women, as men have already had more freedom, rights and privileges than their female counterparts for centuries, but exactly how much truth does this hold in today’s society?
In an increasingly inclusive, egalitarian society, it may seem as though gender inequality is an issue of the past, yet how can one explain the inherent biases that can be observed from something as trivial as our everyday language? Our daily conversations are a testament to the prevalence of gender-biased language and its multitude of effects on all of us. Emma Watson hit the nail right on the head in her speech to the United Nations a few years ago when she launched HeForShe, a campaign which strived to advance gender equality -- and which remains very much a relevant cause underpinned by, among several factors, our language.
In her childhood, Watson was described as “bossy” when compared to her brothers, only because she was self-assured in her desire to “direct the plays [they] would put on for their parents”. She consequently realised the nuanced gender-based assumptions in the way we communicate. In fact, in our society, it is acceptable for men to lead, command and assert themselves, but when women do so, they’re regarded as “bossy” or “pushy” -- pejorative terms which discourage women from being in positions of authority. Watson also vividly recalls witnessing her “girlfriends dropping out of sports teams as they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly’”. To fit the beauty standards of our culture, women are expected to sacrifice things that matter to them, so as to adhere to the socially acceptable, prescriptive ideals of female beauty. Based on our definitions of gender, physical strength and being muscular are exclusively characteristic of men, whereas women are associated with being weak and svelte. Clearly, our language and its subtle connotations dictate the gender stereotypes, to which we are expected to conform.
This inevitably raises the question: how are men precisely marginalised by the gender roles of our society when they are conditioned to assume positions of power and strength?
Watson illustrates the underrepresented yet pressing matter of gender inequality and its impact on men as she states her observations of “young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less ‘macho’”. Overwhelmed and debilitated by society’s expectations of them, men are repressed by the gender roles of our culture. They are “unable to express their feelings”, afraid of being considered weak. As a result, they are bound by restrictive gender stereotypes, causing them to not seek help even when they need it most. Our society’s obsession with men’s being “macho” is an unmistakable example of the fragility of masculinity. Men are made to feel lesser and insecure if they do not behave in a “macho” manner, which includes behavior characterised by aggression and being in control. Perhaps the most notoriously sexist expression, “man up” -- used to enforce strength and stoicism when one is in pain or facing adversity, emphasizes the need for us to rethink and reshape our perceptions of men and the gender roles imposed on them.
Besides the behavioural expectations imposed upon men, our culture has also developed a propensity to undervalue the importance of fatherhood and men’s care for their children. For example, the term “breadwinner” is typically associated with a man’s responsibilities in a family which include providing financial support. On the other hand, the woman in the family usually undertakes the duties of a caregiver. For that reason, the English language has created an unequivocally gender-biased term, “motherly”, to convey the caring qualities we expect from women. However, it is often neglected that a father’s role as a caregiver is equally important to a child. As Watson stated, “I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s.” We, as members of one society, are actively undermining the significance of a father’s care for his child, solely because of our beliefs that men are not and should not be able to express emotions. This skewed perception of men is so far-reaching that it has even influenced government policies, evidenced by the many countries in the world that offer maternity leave, but not paternity leave, which highlights the double standard in how we value and prioritize the care of each parent for a child. Although we have not acknowledged it before, we now know that men, too, are subjected to glaringly problematic gender roles which are omnipresent in our culture. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.
The truth is, not only does gender inequality affect the lives of women, it also affects the lives of men. How have we come to ostracize men that display vulnerability and emotional sensitivity? We need to instead recognise that being sensitive and expressing feelings does not make us inferior. They only make us human. We need to realise that our language and the way we communicate have conditioned us to believe in the prejudiced ideals constructed by our culture and society. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Let’s lift the burden off of men and women by acknowledging that both genders can be strong and independent.
We’ve come a long way since women were given the right to vote, but we can do so much better. Ungendering language is key to resolve the greater problem of inequality and gender stereotypes as language is central to our social norms and communication. It’s time for us to feel free to express ourselves and to embrace diversity because gender is a spectrum. It’s time for us to re-evaluate the gender roles that attempted to label and define who we were as individuals. It’s time for us, men and women alike, to seize the opportunity, and join the conversation and movement against gender inequality for a more progressive and equal society. It’s time for change.
“Gendered Languages May Play a Role in Limiting Women's Opportunities, New Research Finds.” World Bank, www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/01/24/gendered-languages-may-play-a-role-in-limiting-womens-opportunities-new-research-finds.
Mahdawi, Arwa. “Allow Me to Womansplain the Problem with Gendered Language | Arwa Mahdawi.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Apr. 2017, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/23/allow-me-to-womansplain-the-problem-with-gendered-language.
Watson, Emma. ENGLISH SPEECH | EMMA WATSON: Gender Equality (English Subtitles). YouTube, YouTube, 22 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIwU-9ZTTJc.