Language matters, especially for our children

I recently sat down at a table with a well-known politician. He said: “All men between the ages of 22 and 50 should work.” I knew his intent: We as Americans should value a culture of hard work.

I turned to my friend and colleague, an older white man, and said, “Did he really just say only men should work? My friend said, “Come on, Deeptee, you know what he meant.” Even my husband said I was too particular and primed through my feminist lens.

Maybe this politician meant, “Everyone between the ages of 22 and 50 should work. But, I am worried about what my 2 year old daughter would have heard. Did she hear the politician say that women might not have the same aspirations as men? Has she heard that women are not welcome in the job market? Or don’t belong?

As a spine surgeon, entrepreneur, and mom, I sit at many different tables. We all know that gender stereotypes exist, that men are promoted more often than women and that the pay gap is real. In 2020, the Pew Research Center determined that women earn 84 cents for every dollar men are paid even when working equivalent jobs.

If we want to change that, I support: language matters. English was created in a society rooted in stereotypical gender norms and as such gender asymmetries, and specifically male generics, are common. For example, the pronoun “he” can be used when gender is irrelevant or unknown. The feminine forms, however, are not used generically and refer specifically to women only. The use of masculine generics is just another tribute to our society’s gender hierarchy, which grants more power to men than to women. As we move towards a more gender equal society, we need to change our language. Gender-just language aims to reduce gender stereotyping and discrimination through neutralization, such as the use of the term “police officer” instead of “policeman”.

Here are three tables we sit at every day where we can pay attention to our language to create spaces and conversations that foster ambition and inclusivity among our colleagues and our children, and everyone in between.

Your office

One of the surgical planners sent an email to all of the nursing staff on our ward stating “Please ask your surgeon if he would like any additional OR time in the next few weeks”. Now it’s true, most of the surgeons in our service are “he”. I am the only female spine surgeon and one of the few female orthopedic surgeons in my department.

I’m sure the sender of the email had no malicious intent when sending the email. I’m looking at this sentence in the historical context of the English language, perhaps using the word “he” as a generic pronoun. However, especially in the context of a service composed of more than 90% male surgeons, such language has the effect of excluding female surgeons. These same comments apply to any organization with a dominant majority – eg managers, investors, service industries.

When emailing, think critically about how you communicate with your colleagues. The use of neutral pronouns avoids excluding the gender minority population in the group and promotes a sense of belonging.

The panel/dais

Often when I attend women-specific events, whether panels or conferences, I frequently lead a session on “work-life balance.” I also get many phone calls from aspiring surgeons asking what it is like to be a surgeon and a mother. In contrast, I go to many conferences with mostly men, and we never discuss parenting or household chores. And I don’t seem to be getting those calls from aspiring male surgeons.

These conversations are indeed essential, especially in our post-COVID world. However, there is often a female-specific character, for example, the need for working women to outsource cleaning. Superficially, these conversations appear to be well-meaning efforts to free women from the mundane chores of the home. But they are fundamentally anchored by the same restrictive, normative and stereotypical gender assumptions: domestic work and childcare are inherently women’s jobs.

We need to change the narrative. I argue that these conversations are important for everyone, men and women. I applaud those who, like my male partner, asked me last week to lead a discussion on this topic at a national conference of mostly men. Let’s move these discussions to be more mainstream and remove the stigma surrounding work-life balance issues as a female-only topic.

The dinner table at home

My two-year-old daughter and I spend most of our evenings at the table reading books while enjoying our meals together. Perhaps my experiences as one of more than 50 female orthopedic spine surgeons in the country, combined with my mother tiger instincts, have made me hyper-aware of any suggestions that discourage my daughter from pursuing her dreams, whatever they are.

As we read aloud from one of Richard Scarry’s books, we found that, page after page, every working professional except the nurse and the hairdresser was portrayed as a male figure. When we finally came across a page that said “A mother’s job is never done” followed by drawings of the mother vacuuming, I had to close the cover on this classic childhood favorite.

Since then, I have discovered many other encouraging modern books that illustrate women changing the world. But nevertheless, I also learned that the images depicted in this book by Richard Scarry are still carried by children today. The 7 year old daughter of one of the nurses I work with was shocked when she learned that her mother worked with a female surgeon.

Thinking back to the words of this politician – I want my daughter to have the luxury of making career choices when the time is right for her – whether it’s a full-time parent or a senior executive. If she grows up with a mindset framed by normative gender stereotypes, she won’t have the freedom to make those choices, because she won’t believe she can. As such, as a culture, we need to be mindful of the specific words and language children hear. I hope that as my daughter grows, our culture will continue to evolve not only to support her ambitions but also to nurture them by making her believe that she can achieve anything she wants.

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