Hey guys! (You too, gals.)
Is the collective address “guys” an example of male-centric language? Mic.com’s Julianne Ross thinks so, and I spoke with her about gender bias in language as part of her research for this powerhouse of a piece on the topic:
Here’s a taste:
I know. It seems like a minor gripe compared with more pressing feminist issues like sexual violence or the wage gap, especially when modern usage shows this kind of language is meant to be colloquial rather than confrontational. And unlike obviously offensive gendered slurs like “bitch” or “slut,” there’s usually no ill-will behind words like “guys,” “dudes” or “men.”
But sexism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and language, as the tool that brings order to our thoughts and allows us to communicate, infiltrates nearly every aspect of our lives. When, as in English, it relies almost entirely on the presupposition of masculinity, it can shape how we see the world.
“The ‘universal male’ (like using ‘men’ to mean ‘people’) assumes that the normal, default human being is male,” Sarah Grey, a professional editor who has led a course called Editing for Inclusive Language, told Mic. . . . The use of “he” to refer to nonspecific persons doesn’t point to some great conspiracy to keep women oppressed, but it does reflect an inequality coded into our linguistic inheritance, a micro-aggression that consistently reminds half of society they are, as they have historically been, secondary.
I should admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I do often use “guys” to address women. (I’m from Pittsburgh, where “yinz guys” is the preferred collective form of address.) Perhaps I use it too much, since my five-year-old daughter likes to use it in addressing her dad and me. Yesterday she turned to me (just me! alone!) and said, “Guys, guys, look at this!” (I gently teased her about this. “Guys means every person, Mama,” she responded.)
I think Ross makes some great points here, though, and this is a useful contribution to an ongoing discussion about pronouns and gender that made it into the Wall Street Journal this week with an article by lexicographer Ben Zimmer. My friend and colleague Ashley Bischoff also pointed out this survey by Julia Evans on perceptions of the meaning of “guy(s)” in different contexts. It turns out “hey guys!” is much more likely to be perceived as neutral than “let’s hire some guys”– especially by women, who would generally also like to be considered for the job.
Someone recently asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” She answered, “When there are nine.” Her point was that until we can default to the feminine without anyone thinking it’s weird or even taking any notice, we haven’t reached even nominal equality.
What do you ladies think? (You too, guys.)