Sexist Language

Hey you guys!  What’s wrong with this picture?

Have you guys guessed it yet?

If you guys haven’t figured it out yet, it’s actually not that surprising.  At least in American society it has become the cultural norm to refer to a mixed-gender group collectively as “guys” no matter how many female-identified individuals are in that crowd.  No one seems to be immune to this practice, not even myself.  Until a colleague brought it to my attention about a year ago, I never realized that I often addressed my graduate cohort of over 40 women and 5 men during presentations or discussions as “you guys.”

Since then, I’ve worked hard to remove this kind of language.  I’ve done this because, as UNC Professor Sherryl  Kleinman has written, “male-based generics are another indicator — and more importantly, a reinforcer— of a system in which “man” in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women.”   Paying attention to this kind of seemingly innocuous language has also made me aware of other areas where we slip into the norm of male supremacy.  For instance, while discussing a case study in class the other day the entire group referred to the school principle as “he” and the teacher as “she” even though the case study did not actually specify the genders at all.

As a sexual health educator, I’ve also noticed how gendered language is reflected in and influenced by sexual norms.  Women are in charge of making sure they have a contraceptive method.  Men are in charge of having a condom and knowing how to properly use it.  These are just a few examples of the gendered norms that can keep individuals from fully expressing their sexuality, communicating with their partner, and enjoying their sex lives.

You might be thinking right now, why does it matter?  Who cares?  These are just words we use and they don’t mean anything.

It matters because language matters.  Many of us know this first hand as victims of derogatory words that are racist, classist, or sexist.  Even as I wrote this post I had to be mindful of using language that didn’t reinforce that there are only two genders (male or female) and might exclude individuals who identify outside of this binary, like the two-spirit people of some indigenous American groups.  For example I chose, ”it has become the cultural norm to refer to a mixed-gender group…”  instead of writing that “it has become the cultural norm to refer to a group of men and women…

So why don’t you try it on for size?  How easy or hard do you think it might be to stop using phrases like “you guys” or “man up” in your everyday language?  How do you think it might affect your friends, or the UNC community?

You won’t know unless you try!

To read Dr. Kleinman’s full article, check out

2 thoughts on “Sexist Language

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