Businessman. Businesswoman. These words represent different genders in the same profession but have different connotations. For too many people,” businessman” makes them think of someone strong and independent. “Businesswoman?” Bossy and catty come to mind.
Pantene recently addressed this topic in a controversial commercial by taking stereotypical words associated with women in leadership positions and comparing them to terms that describe males in the same position. “Boss” became “bossy,”; “persuasive” became “pushy.” As a result of this commercial, the public has again started to push for gender-neutral pronouns to avoid gender-based discrimination.
Gender neutrality is a good thing. Having a professional title based on gender evokes a specific nuance on the word, and, in many cases, these negative overtones are more prevalent with women’s identifiers. Gender neutrality as part of the English language, theoretically, would eliminate these snap judgments. Additionally, not everyone identifies as male or female, so gender neutral terms would not force people into those boxes.
I cannot, however, fully agree with the idea of eliminating all gender identifiers. Society shouldn’t behave as if identifying a certain way is something that should not be acknowledged. Using gender-neutral titles can wipe out gender distinction. The male and female genders are different, so why not treat them as such?
A cliché is a cliché for a reason, and in many cases, these negative associations exist because they often, though not always, have a root in the truth. Language itself relies on words having undertones that give people an immediate reaction. Words are meant to have a distinct meaning and impact, and without these, language would lose its potency.
If people are truly dedicated to eliminating gender discrimination, they shouldn’t be focusing on erasing words. At their core, words are–crudely put–a mixture of letters that fade in and out of fashion. It is the intimation of the word that leaves a lasting impression, and it is the hidden meaning of the word that people should be attempting to change. There is no quick and easy way to achieve gender equality. It is something that takes time and a concentrated, conscious effort.
So take another look at the words businessman and businesswoman, because it’s up to this generation and the those that follow to decide if they get to stay. Most importantly, it is up to us to decide what they mean.
Written by Sarah Fornshell’15