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Why language matters: How language fuels gender inequality

"You can clearly see that this young lady, who is our foreign minister, doesn't feel particularly comfortable or that it's not her world."

These were the words of the diplomatic correspondent of the Tagesspiegel, a German news outlet, in response to a photo of Germany's first female Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, at the frontline of eastern Ukraine wearing protective gear and looking rather grim.

copyright: Bernd von Jutrczenka

"Young lady" is what many adults say to little girls if they have misbehaved, not a term for a woman in one of the nation's most important and influential positions. Suppose the photo in question gave the impression Annalena Baerbock was not comfortable on the Ukrainian front. In that case, my question is, what should she have done differently? Give a smile and excitedly wave at the people on the brink of war? Wear a nice outfit so that the newspapers can discuss her style rather than her accomplishments or listen to what she has to say, which in and of itself is another big issue with women in leadership positions – the constant reduction in her choice of wardrobe.

This statement is not just condescending and diminishes the capabilities of a 40-something-year-old politician, who has been a member of parliament for over a decade, was a candidate for chancellor, was the leader of her party and now serves as the Foreign Minister of one of the biggest economies in the world and who clearly is not a young and inexperienced person.

It also shows an underlying issue with the language we still use when talking to or about women, in particular women in historically male-dominated fields.

This is rooted in plain misogyny and is enabled by a society that often sees past these remarks and puts them aside as jokes, misunderstandings, compliments, or worse, suggesting people who complain are exaggerating.

Language shapes us, how we think, and how we view the world. 

Unfortunately, it also plays a big part in persisting gender inequality. We use different words for people of different genders. What do you think of if you read the terms "strong," "assertive," and "leader" compared to someone who is "kind," "emotional," "caring," or even "hysterical"? Even if people behave the same way, more often than not, a woman would be called bossy while a man acting the same would simply be confident.

These biases, intentionally or not, are ingrained in all of us because that is how society has been shaped. The same can be said about certain sayings we frequently use. Anything female-related is seen as weak, while anything male-related is considered strong. "Man up" versus "You cry like a girl." Doing something brave "takes balls," while someone afraid of something is considered "being a pussy." We oftentimes don't think about these or similar terms because we have simply always used them and never seen them as a problem that might play a part in fueling gender inequality. We don't think about how these words and sayings stem from deep misogyny within our society.

Some languages, including English, differentiate between a married woman and a single one (Mrs. vs. Ms.). At the same time, it's not done for men. While this seems like a small thing, it suggests that the status or, if taking it a step further, a woman's worth is inherently linked to her marital status. This links to successful women constantly being asked how they manage it all. If she is a top manager in a company, or in our starting case, a leading politician, who takes care of the children if she is out there working in a demanding job? Suppose she isn't married yet by 30. Shouldn't she step back from her career and consider family planning as for her ticking biological clock? If she doesn't want children and puts her career first, she is selfish and doesn't know what she truly wants.

People might say the reporter's comment towards Germany's Foreign Minister was not meant condescendingly, but the way the reporter said it: "that young lady who is our foreign minister", instead of simply referring to her as the Foreign Minister, shows to me that the choice of words was deliberate and with the sole intention of belittling and downplaying her influence and capabilities as a serious politician. All the given examples are intertwined, and this comment was just the tip of the misogynistic iceberg. In the months before the election in Germany in 2021, you could see a difference in the way people talked about Annalena Baerbock as a candidate compared to her two male competitors.

Women in leadership positions are frequently held to a different standard than men. Their leadership style is looked at differently. 

Taking it back to the words we use to describe people, and whom we think of when hearing certain adjectives, we use more communal terms to describe women and power terms to describe men. This consequently leads to the mental image of a man in power and subconsciously believing that men are more capable in these positions. Downplaying the effect of the words used to talk about powerful women prevents many from reaching their full potential. It makes it a lot more difficult for them to be taken seriously for what they do. You don't have to be a supporter of Annalena Baerbock or of any female politician if your views don't align with hers. But you got to have enough respect for the human being to acknowledge someone's achievements and not belittle them based solely on their gender. You can dislike someone without turning to misogynistic tactics to discredit them.

What we say matters, and how we say it matters. So, consider what you want to say and, for a moment, question your bias.

If you want to watch the interview (in German), you can do so here:

If you want to learn more about how language and other daily things in our lives are gendered and oftentimes biased, check out This is Gendered, the feminist encyclopedia.

If you want to read more about gender-inclusive language, check out these websites and articles:

copyright: Bernd von Jutrczenka

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