“Katie Ledecky is swimming like a man.”
“And here is the man who’s responsible for her success.” (Speaking about Katinka Hosszu)
“Simone Biles is the next Michael Phelps.”
Thanks to the global media attention of the Rio Olympic Games 2016, a big spotlight is shed on the representation of gender through language. It made the experiences that girls and women all over the world are confronted with and deal with on a daily basis in all areas of life more visible.
While looking at language through a gender lens and addressing formulations related to women and men and human beings in general, this article is based on the work of the Speak Green Initiative. It aims at inspiring and encouraging all of us to develop a more intentional language; the way we think, speak and consequently act, to transform the world we live in. Let’s have a closer look at “that’s just the way we say it here” and consider changing it.
Girls and Boys
Young women are called “girls” until deep into their adulthood. Sometimes this can be flattering, most often it is irritating and far too jovial, depending on who says it. Interestingly, the NBC commentators reported about the “men’s cycling team,” and the “girls’ cycling team”, not the “women’s cycling team”.
Boys are called “men” or “young men” a lot earlier than girls are called “women” or “young women” — the closest they might get is “young lady”. We even call baby boys “little man”.
In day-to-day language, boys don’t cry and in case they do, they are told to “man up!”. If they show fear, the request is “to have balls” — quite ironic when one considers how really sensitive they are. And in case boys (and men) show noisy, rude or unpleasant behavior, the following well-established idiom comes in handy: Boys will be boys!
In the case of swimmer Ryan Loche, the story isn’t over yet. It’s time to hold boys and men accountable like everyone else.
“Dependents” is a term used in reference to “spouse and children”. Men are considered breadwinners — why else do “female breadwinners” need to be specified?
“Male nurses” need this specification too, as nursing is among the professions that are typically held by a majority of women. It will be interesting to witness the language that will be used when the position of the First Lady will be held by the First Spouse.
When women are performing very well, they might garner labels and attributes that say “like a guy” or even “better than a man”. The ultimate praise seems to be “woman with balls”. Who said that male behavior is the standard everything should be compared to?
Girls and women don’t aim to fit into the glass slippers; their goal is to shatter the glass ceiling (in case there is one). Not even the sky is the limit, rather the sky is wide open. They aren’t “female heroes”, they are “heroines” and “sheras”, ready to write “herstory” and to bring themselves further in.
One important message of these Olympic Games is the invitation that all human beings may go beyond limitations and contribute the potential of their strengths and talents to this world.
Once you get sensitized to this male-dominated language, you will notice other terms like “female landlords”, “female freshmen”, “female blue-collar workers”, etc.
The two runners Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin, who supported one another following a mid-race collision during the 5,000-meter competition, have been awarded the Olympic medal for sportsmanship, which actually is an award for the athletes’ sporting spirit and compassion.
We speak about the father of modern management, the father of a certain theory, or even a forefather. What do we mean today when we say that “All men are created equal” and “All men are born free, equally free and independent”? How do wo/man or hu/man instead of “man” sound to you? Do we think “humankind” when we say “mankind”?
When the tennis player Andy Murray was called ‘the first person to ever win two Olympic tennis gold medals’, he responded, “Well, to defend the singles title, I think Venus and Serena have won about four each. It’s obviously not an easy thing to do and I had to fight unbelievably hard to get it tonight as well.”
“It’s a man’s world” in which we speak about career women and working mums, whilst not even having an expression for career men and working dads. Michael Phelps wasn’t particularly recognized as a “swimming dad”. Ginny Trasher is not “a girl with a gun” but an Olympic gold winning shooter.
In an interview, Serena Williams was asked “There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think about when you hear someone talk like that?” Williams responded, “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’”
On the same note, Drew Gilpin Faust comes to mind when she said, “I’m not the woman President of Harvard, I’m the President of Harvard.”
Another theme the Olympics and especially the US women’s soccer team brought to the whole world’s attention is the general gender pay gap. While men earn one dollar, women earn 77 cents. Maybe that’s why we describe work as “manpower” and “man days”. No joke!
Equal Pay Day is celebrated on April 12, which symbolizes how many more days into the year women have to work to earn what men have earned in the previous year. This day marks the additional 23%. It’s about time that CEOs, politicians and others in power go beyond hierarchies, promote equal pay and close that gap.
Beyond Two Sexes
When is a woman a woman? When is a man a man?
And maybe even this question is already nonsense.
It’s important to express that all these examples and suggestions are inspired on the basis of the fe/male dichotomy. Being aware of them and changing them are two important steps forward regarding this necessary transition. Femininity and masculinity are not two poles of one dimension, they are actually two different dimensions. Human beings are not either or (and not a third sex in between), they are a unique variation.
These Olympic Games brought attention to this fallacy of sex and gender binaries and reminded us that we all need a more nuanced understanding of the sex and gender spectrum. We are speaking about gender diversity.
Let’s continue this conversation.
For Diversity — We Are in This Together
By diving deeply into how we speak about women and men in different areas of our lives, this article seeks to increase our awareness for gender specific formulations in our day-to-day language, going far beyond the Olympic Games.
It’s high time we acknowledge gender diversity, to formulate a gender-neutral language beyond sex and gender stereotypes, honoring all human beings, and promote and cherish diversity in all areas of life worldwide.
Let’s transcend into a new way of living and relating with each other. This includes a more conscious way of expression with an intentional choice of words.
The invitation is to adopt a peaceful language (no more “fights”, “struggles”, “battles”, “combatting”, “winning” and “losing”). Let’s go beyond the dichotomies, binaries, polarities of “us versus them” and even “us and them” and reach the “we”. We are all response-able to support the very important work that needs to be done for an embodied integration of human diversity. It’s about a cultural evolution. We are the authors of our realities.
We have a choice to express the change we wish to see in this world, day-by-day and word-by-word.
Call to Action
If you liked this article, check out the speakGreen Facebook page and the speakGreen website and share them with your family, friends and networks.
Claudia Gross is the author of the article “Brave New Words”, published on Dec. 10, 2015 in the Great Work Cultures blog of the Huffington Post. She is an Organizational Development Consultant, Management Trainer, Transformation Catalyst, Social Processes Facilitator and Host. She has a vast working experience in Germany, the Maghreb, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa (www.claudiagross.com). Claudia is both the founder of human-centered Organizational Governance (www.hcOrG.com) promoting life at work, and the initiator of speakGreen which is offering a new emerging vocabulary that is providing a generative, constructive language for the future (www.speak-Green.com).