Language and Bias – How the world speaks ‘double standard’

For International Women’s Day 2023, we wanted to call out the sexism and stereotyping hidden in everyday language. For example, ‘Player/Slut’, ‘Ambitious/Pushy’, or ‘Assertive/Bossy’.  Couplets where the female descriptor is an unmistakably hostile version of the label given to men. 

As we dug in, we wondered if similar couplets exist in languages other than English. So we turned to our linguistic friends over at international content agency Locaria, who indeed confirmed that gendered language is not exclusive to English but, in fact, common in many languages, rolling off the tongue as easily as 1, 2, 3 (or un, deux, trois….).

Idioms and idiosyncrasies

Specifically, Locaria told us that whether in French, Arabic, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Italian or Spanish, a double standard similar to our campaign couplets exists. For example, ‘Assertive/Bossy’ translates as Líder/Mandona in Spanish, Charismatique/Autoritaire in French and Durchsetzungsfähig/Rechthaberisch in German.

With this kind of sexist stereotyping built into so many languages, undoubtedly impacting perceptions of women in the workplace and their leadership opportunities, is it any surprise that just 24% of the world’s parliamentarians are female?

Take another of our couplets: ‘Ambitious/Pushy’ becomes Ambitieux/Dominatrice in French, Ehrgeizig/Aufdringlich in German and Ambicioso/Terca in Spanish. Again, the sentiment is inherently negative for the female equivalent of the label, suggesting that wherever they may live in the world, the next generation of women following their dreams will continue to face bias.


Research & analysis

One highlight (lowlight?) from the analysis was French and its unrivalled list of feminine nouns and adjectives that have a negative and often sexual meaning, while the masculine equivalent is completely unrelated. Here are just a few: Un gars/une garce (a guy/a bitch), bon/bonne (good/good to f*ck), un homme public/une femme publique (a public man/a prostitute), un péripatéticien/une péripatéticienne (a philosopher who follows Aristotle/a prostitute…again).

Meanwhile, in Spanish, ‘acojonudo’, meaning ‘the best’,  is derived from ‘cojones’ (slang for testicles), whereas ‘coñazo’ – the ‘worst’ – comes from ‘coño’ (vagina).

(Similarly, of course, in English, we say, ‘grow some balls’ to tell someone to toughen up: honestly, we can’t help thinking that both languages would be a lot better off channelling the resilience of the female body part – HELLO CHILDBIRTH – versus inexplicably referring to parts of the male body known for their particular sensitivity!)

Another interesting piece Locaria identified in their linguistic analysis relates to marriage. In English, Bachelor/Spinster suggests the desirability of a man, whatever his age, versus the non-desirability of an unmarried woman – and the same is true in many other languages. (It has to be said, though, Spain takes the biscuit, with their couplet literally translating as ‘golden bachelor’ vs ‘the last pick’.)

In German, we see women who voice an opinion being described as nagging, unlike their male counterparts who are seen as being ‘critical’ (kritisierend vs nörgelnd) or bitching, versus men who instead ‘complain’ (beschweren vs zicken).

Clearly, sexism and bias often hide in everyday language – and while some languages display less bias than others, it’s a problem of global proportions. But what if we could change this – imagine the ripple effect we’d see if we were all just a little more choiceful about the vocabulary we use. A ripple effect stemming from the one power we all have. The power of our voice.

Take the Pledge for Positivity now!

If you like what you read and want to explore the topic more, check out the links below:
Change the narrative
International Women’s Day ’22