Women, Fire and Dangerous Things - Gender in Language and how it impacts biases.

I volunteer with the International Humanistic Management Association and I get to do cool things. One of the things I do for them is interview interesting people about how they apply humanist principles in the workplace. In January 2020 - I got to interview Dan Tyre who is the Chief People Person at Hubspot.

We had a great conversation online - which you can view here: 

Afterwards - because he is really a neat person - we exchanged some emails on gender bias in the language - which came up in the interview.

Here is what I sent him:

There is a really cool book you might want to read on this called Women, Fire and Dangerous Things byGeorge Lakoff. I studied Linguistics in college. The book is basically about how different languages use gender and impose gender on non-gendered things – like in English – boats are female.  Gender categories differ from language to language and culture to culture and we don’t always realize how gender is impacting how we think about things.  The title of the book comes from a language where one of the gender categories is – women/fire/dangerous things.

English has several genders in our language – single male (he), single female (she), single gender neutral (it), and plural (they).   Hindi – in contrast has single male, plural male and single/plural female.  They have no non-gender pronouns. Everything has a gender in the binary and the gender is what conjugates the verb, unlike in English, where the sense of time conjugates the verb. 

In order to discuss a book in Hindi - you would have to know what gender books are in Hindi.  In English – we would call it – "it" because we have a non-gendered pronoun and our verbs don’t require gender to conjugate.  However, we do apply gender to non-gender things in English based on what we attribute to the gender.  For instance, a generic cat – is usually female in English (unless we know the gender).  A generic dog is usually male (good boy) – unless we know the gender.

All languages have gender categories and they all place inanimate objects and animate non-gendered objects into those gender categories and to speak the language – you usually have to understand what the gender category is - in other words, what the traits of the gender are considered to be. In Hindi – you have to know chairs are female – but beds are male.  Or that water is masculine but air is feminine.

It is these gender attributes in the language that cause part of the bias problems we experience and have to work to overcome. In a language where being female is equaled with fire and dangerous things – you would expect women to be treated differently than in a language/culture where women are considered equal to sugar and spice and everything nice.

The same biases impact men and individuals whose gender is not easily defined by the languages gender categories.

It is these implicit biases  - some of which are coded into our languages - that are so difficult to overcome and why ALL of us can benefit from learning more about implicit biases and how they effect our thinking.

I do have a free online course that can help - https://humanistlearning.com/controlling-our-unconscious-bias/

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