Sunday, November 13, 2011

Should a woman be one of the "guys?"

It’s been one of my pet peeves for years, even in my prefeminist days, so when a  Facebook friend began her post with, “I need a little help, guys” it set me off.

The term "guys" is often applied to mixed companies of men and women.
“I’m not a guy,” I responded to the use of the all-to-common address used in mixed company.

“Guys is all-inclusive,” she said, “Which is obviously proven by Sloth in 'Goonies.'"

Say what?

Well, I admit I’ve never seen “Goonies,” but I would hesitate to cite a single movie from 1985 as obvious proof  that the term “guys,” as it applies to a group of men and women, is acceptable as all-inclusive.

What I would cite are are academic sources for proof that such language is indeed sex- and gender-biased and not inclusive at all.

I would start with The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  A section devoted to gender-sensitive language, explains it this way:

“Another common gendered expression, particularly in informal speech and writing, is 'you guys.' This expression is used to refer to groups of men, groups of women, and groups that include both men and women. Although most people mean to be inclusive when they use 'you guys,' this phrase wouldn't make sense if it didn't subsume women under the category 'guys.' To see why 'you guys' is gendered male, consider that 'a guy' (singular) is definitely a man, not a woman, and that most men would not feel included in the expression 'you gals' or 'you girls.'”

Language is important because its influence is so subtle.  Every time we speak we have an opportunity to either advance sexism or stop it in its tracks.  But, we first have to acknowledge that language is often overlooked as a factor in the perpetuation of sexism.

Feminist scholars agree.

A paper titled, "Seeing the Unseen:  Attention to Daily Encounters With Sexism as Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs" published in the June 2011 issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, concludes that both men and women tend to overlook – and perhaps even deem acceptable – more subtle forms of sexism they encounter on a daily basis, such as the use of sex- and gender-biased language.

According to its publisher, SAGE Journals, Psychology of Women Quarterly is "a feminist, scientific, peer-reviewed journal that publishes empirical research, critical reviews and theoretical articles that advance a field of inquiry, brief reports on timely topics, teaching briefs, and invited book reviews related to the psychology of women and gender."

Commenting on the paper, Science Daily makes the point that  "Nearly everyone can recognize the stereotypical scene of construction workers catcalling women as being sexist, but both men and women tend to overlook the more subtle daily acts of sexism they encounter ... Things such as calling women 'girls' but not calling men 'boys' or referring to a collective group as 'guys' are forms of subtle sexism that creep into daily interactions."

Science Daily goes on to quote the paper's authors, psychologists Janet Swim of Pennsylvania State University and Julia Becker of Philipps University Marburg, Germany, as saying "Women endorse sexist beliefs, at least in part, because they do not attend to subtle, aggregate forms of sexism in their personal lives."

And further, "Many men not only lack attention to such incidents but also are less likely to perceive sexist incidents as being discriminatory and potentially harmful for women."
What's more, says Science Daily, "The study goes on to differentiate the way men and women's beliefs change once they become aware of subtle sexism. Women need to 'see the unseen,' the authors note, to make corrections, whereas men need not only to be aware of the sexist behavior or comments, but also to feel empathy for the women targeted. These results are consistent with other studies which found that empathy is an effective method for reducing racial and ethnic prejudice."

So, do we correct the use of sex and gender-biased language when we hear it -- and thereby make "the unseen" obvious?  I say, yes.  Although, be prepared for repercussions such as being labeled an oversensitive, nasty, annoying feminist and being dropped as a Facebook friend.

Another question would be, "What -- if anything -- should we say instead?"

I found an online exchange from the women's studies email forum at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where a participant endorsed my personal favorite expression, "y'all," for a couple of reasons:

"I nominate "y'all" as a perfect feminist solution to two problems: the English language's lack of a plural "you," and the related issue of trying to create a plural "you" using gender-specific words like "you guys." Or worse, "gals" and "girls."

Or Goonies. 

"Friends" appears courtesy of NBC.

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