Words that Count Women In

Words that Count Women In
The Ontario's Women's Directorate
Toronto, Due for Release January 1993, 36 pages, Paper, Free

Reviewed by Kate Kaufman

Words that Count Women In by the Ontario Women's Directorate is a popular guide to eliminating gender bias in writing and speech. Its direct approach to modifying lanuage that entrenches stereotyping may cause some discomfort for those with fixed mindsets about gender relations, and provide some surprises for those who claim open-mindedness.

This short work makes no claims to being definitive, yet it provides tremendous food for thought. Changing times require redefining terms as new relationships break old boundaries. Why is it easy to accept a newly-coined phrase or word - tofu, quark, hacker, flextime - than it is to replace a dated term with a fresh one?

Example: "Granted, 'manhole cover' sounds more natural to many of us than the non-biased alternative, 'sewer cover.' But that's because it's new. To our children's generation, 'manhole cover' will likely seem downright quaint."

Now to the surprises. Thinking myself reasonably open-minded, I chuckled at example after example, until I was stopped dead. Lively writing using nouns that degrade women ("trollop, shrew, biddy, oaf, scoundrel") is followed by suggestions for replacing nouns with verbs ("tussle, plod, lurch, slither") for pictoral clout. Time to pause and reflect. Yes this is a valuable exercise, primarily because it puts a halt to asumptions and encourages one to stretch. I'm reminded of that old lesson: don't tell your kid she's a bad girl, let her know she's behaving badly.

Here are some of the questions that come to mind as one puruses this work: What's at the root of the discomfort with new word usage? How does one describe stereotypic characters? Did I realize I was stereotyping?

Gender-biased communication - images projected through our choice of stereotypic verbal symbols, or pictures in graphic presentations showing only men in positions of responsibility - is stilted and supports the status quote. This concept is unveiled in the section, "The Parallelism Principle." Meaningful change occurs only when words and actions fall into sync.

This short work is thoughtfully compiled. It includes a glossary of unbiased terms to replace biased ones, anecdotes and suggested readings disclosing plenty of thought-provoking sytemic biases we may not even be aware we hold. The Ontario Women's Directorate invites us to send along our experiences with inclusive lanuage and to share creative solutions to "count women in".

This article originally appeared in Sources, 31st. Edition.


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