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Victoria Uni psychologist tackles sexist language

Chick, Sheila, Mrs, Miss and Ms – words for women, do they matter? Is women’s language so different from men’s that they’re from different planets? Victoria University psychologist Ann Weatherall tackles these questions and more in her new book, Gender, Language and Discourse, published next month.

Dr Weatherall challenges some of the myths of research into gender and language. She argues debate about whether a meeting convenor should be known as a chairman or chairperson or if a woman in the theatre should be known as an actor or actress have oversimplified the issues. Using the word “firefighter” actually hides the fact that most people in the fire service are men.

“I don’t think there is one correct language but what’s more important is that people use language to highlight political issues and to challenge social inequities. For example, it was once seen as derogatory call a homosexual ‘queer’ but now gay men have reclaimed the word. So I don’t think there is one perfect answer to whether woman actors should be actors or actresses.”

“Some organisations have policies which say adult women should not be called ‘girls’ but if you told the Silver Ferns not to call each other girls they would say ‘why not? It helps us feel like a team. What are you trying to do, police our language?’”

Likewise, she questions the views of American therapist Dr John Gray who, in his 1992 book Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, argued that men and women speak different languages and therefore have difficulty communicating.

Dr Weatherall says such arguments have become so extreme they’re used as an excuse for not listening. “Commonsense suggests that women and men do not speak different languages to the point that they can’t understand each other – people live together, and have happy relationships so they obviously have some understanding of each other.”

Dr Weatherall says the academic debate about whether men and women speak differently, which has raged for 30 years, has become staid. Some researchers have found differences, while others have not and the reality is there is no consensus.

She believes the debate is futile because it’s based on assumption that gender is fixed. “Men and women’s language does differ, however, the point is that the way that they differ is not fixed or stable but is instead flexible or dynamic.

“People draw on cultural ideas of how men and women speak, so we’re all to some extent bi-lingual in Martian and Venetian, or men’s and women’s languages. One study interviewed a man who successfully worked on a telephone sex line pretending to be a woman by pitching his voice higher and speaking slower and adding hesitancy to the way he spoke.”


Issued by Victoria University of Wellington Public Affairs
For further information please contact Antony.Paltridge@vuw.ac.nz or phone +64-4-463-5873

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