Sexism refers to discrimination against individuals based on sex and has historically described discrimination specifically against women. The perceived social and biological inferiority of women has existed for centuries in the West (and also throughout the globe), and although women in the last century have made advances—the right to own property and vote, for example—sexism prevails, especially against women of color and trans women. Women still, on average, earn lower wages than men; women are much more likely than men to be raped or stalked; and women are still underrepresented in positions of power and leadership. Importantly, women of color, at the intersection of race and gender, face each of these challenges to a greater extent than White women. Examples of such intersectional injustices are how, on average, White and Asian American women make about 20% less than White men, while Black and Latina women make about 30 and 40% less than White men respectively or how female immigrants of color sometimes have to choose between reporting domestic abuse and facing deportation or detention. (To learn more about intersectionality, visit Subsection 6.2.1) Part of writing with awareness and respect means that you as an author are attentive to the context of historical and current discrimination that women face and cognizant of how the choices you make in writing engage with that context.
Writing with attention to gender inclusivity, however, can be onerous because sexism is ingrained in English. As we wrote at the beginning of this chapter, language can embody prejudice, discrimination, and hierarchies. We have historically used the pronoun “he” as the standard, universal pronoun. In English, we have only “Mr.” for men (a title that is the same, regardless of men’s marital status), but “Miss” and “Mrs.” for women (titles that mark not only gender but also marital status as an essential component of a woman’s identity). We also have policemen, firemen, fishermen,and many other job titles that are used generically for all employees in the profession, even though women also work in those professions; many of those titles have female equivalents (policewoman, firewoman, fisherwoman), but those titles are never used generically to refer to all people in the profession—and gender is not necessarily important to the work involved in those job titles.
But language changes! “He” is no longer generally accepted as a universal pronoun, and alternatives like singular “they” have grown in popularity and acceptance (to read more about they as a singular pronoun, check out They As a Singular Pronoun). “Ms.” was created as a parallel title to “Mr.,” as titles that do not mark marital status. Professional titles such as “flight attendant,” instead of “stewardess,” offer gender-neutral job titles that emphasize the work the person does, rather than the gender of the person doing the work. These changes come not from grammarians; they come from people like you who saw injustice and acted against it. Keep reading to learn more about what you can do to continue to combat sexism in your speaking and writing.
Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking courses in Gender Studies, Queer Studies, or Women’s Studies or looking into programs offered by your university’s diversity center are great places to start.