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Occupational Inequality and Sex-Role Stereotyping in Dictionaries of English: A Causal Link?

by Dorota Osuchowska (Author)
Monographs 196 Pages

Summary

Have dictionaries of English indeed affected their users’ predisposition towards women to such an extent that we can posit a causal relation between what they propose and some of the forms of occupational sexism that still exist? Applying a data-collection methodology that has not been previously resorted to in any studies into the portrayal of women in these dictionaries challenges such a claim: the real exposure to sexist content is actually smaller than previous work is suggesting.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter One: Occupational Sexism in Numbers – and Dictionaries of English
  • 1.1 Major Manifestations of Gender-Based Occupational Inequality
  • 1.2 The Relation of Language to Thought and – Ultimately – Behaviour: What Research Says
  • 1.3 Conditioning for Occupational Inequality in Dictionaries of English
  • 1.4 Taken to Task: A Lexicographer’s Response to Charges of Propagating Sexism
  • Summary of Chapter One
  • Chapter Two: The Exposure to Sexist Content in the Case of ALD2
  • 2.1 Methodological Background
  • 2.2 The Analysis: What Would the User See?
  • 2.3 Discussion of the Results
  • Summary of Chapter Two
  • Concluding Remarks
  • References
  • Appendix One
  • Appendix Two
  • Index
  • Series index

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Preface

A relatively recent report published in the summer of 2017 clearly evidences that occupational sexism – which can be provisionally defined as sexist practices, actions and statements a person of a given sex is exposed to at their workplace – seems as alive and well as it has always been. As much as 42 % of U.S. working women reported that they have faced some form of gender discrimination on the job. Being a college or university graduate is, as the same report reveals, of little aid in such circumstances: on the contrary, a group of better educated women reported ‘experiencing discrimination … at significantly higher rates than women with less education.’1

Language is frequently claimed to constitute one of the reasons as to why the gender divide – including the differential treatment of men and women at work – still exists. The first, distinct category of studies – one that we will also be concentrating on below – is work that focuses on stereotypical views about women that language helps to transmit. The second group of studies that will only be given a cursory mention includes work that has demonstrated how certain linguistic structures – e.g. a system of nouns and pronouns that speakers of a specific language have at their disposal – correlate with certain sexist practices, say, the preferential hiring of men. As evidenced by research in this second category, speakers of languages in which the biological distinctions between the sexes are reflected by its system of pronouns are more likely to give a job to a male candidate even if the second, female applicant demonstrates identical experience and qualifications.

Initially, the entrenchment of stereotypical views that are associated with being a man or a woman in a society is carried out through the medium of spoken language. Children of both sexes are repeatedly told what character traits they should best develop and what forms of employment are ‘appropriate’ male and female jobs. Gradually, transmission by means of the written medium comes into force, e.g. in the form of early reading books (such as children’s literature) and, next, schoolbooks. However, this transition from spoken to written medium does not mean that the overall socialization pattern has changed in any significant manner as both sexes are still ascribed and depicted in terms of the ←7 | 8→two major sets of character traits – communal/warmth and agentic – they are believed to possess. Iconicity – in this case a clear prevalence in such texts of male over female characters – should also leave one in no doubt as to the relative unimportance of women who, in such books, do not take on so many various roles or nor do they take part is as many different activities as boys do (Crystal 1995: 46).

Needless to say, the texts that children are routinely expected to read do not exhaust a list of genres that have been accused of portraying the female in a negative, highly stereotypical manner. Academic writings, autobiographies, cartoons, comics, computer-mediated communication, diaries, erotic texts, fiction, graffiti, greetings cards, horoscopes, legal documents, letters, magazines, manuals, medical/psychiatric texts, narratives, news reports, personal ads, play scripts, poetry, posters, problem pages, religious texts, and travel guides (Sunderland 2006: 78) have also been found to portray women in a way that is ‘particularly discriminatory and damaging’ to them (Pauwels 2003: 551),2 as they present the stereotypical views of women’s behaviour, personality or the way they talk.

Dictionaries, one of a number of hitherto unnamed genres from Sunderland’s list, constitute a special category among those cited above, if only because of the great authority they hold in some countries and contexts. The thing namely is that users in such countries seem to place blind faith in what a dictionary says – a trust that extends well beyond what it says on the use of language. In consequence, if a dictionary chose to illustrate the meaning of shekel with a fragment from Leviticus in which we see a female paid thirty shekels and a man fifty, quite a few users out there would start citing its authority in justification for how much they pay to their male and female employees.3 The trust that dictionaries of ←8 | 9→English enjoy among their users also means that they have special responsibility not to encourage views that may result in the discrimination of any of the social groups – the two sexes, the aged, people of various ethnic origin or the disabled – that willy-nilly appear in the illustrative material dictionary compilers cite from various sources – or create themselves.

Have dictionaries of English indeed – as research implies – affected their users’ predisposition twoards women to such an extent that we can these days posit a causal relation between what they propose and some of the forms of occupational sexism that still exist? If we examined this body of work concentrating, exclusively, on the (sexist) material studies into sex-role stereotyping in these dictionaries, we would have no choice but to conclude that they certainly have the potential to affect its readers. As these analyses revealed, if a contemporary working North American woman (such as those targeted by the study mentioned in the opening paragraph) is still being discriminated against, this is partly because of the stereotypes that texts representing various genres, including dictionaries, once helped instill in the minds of those she depends on/works with. Put differently, if a contemporary working woman in the U.S., Great Britain or Australia is still coming across views that question her right to be professionally active, one of the reasons may be these dictionary examples that insist on presenting her exclusively as a mother and wife. If she still hears allusions to a part-time occupation as the best employment solution for her, this may be partly because of dictionary examples that showed her doing jobs that make it easier for her to accommodate her domestic responsibilities. By the same token, if she still comes across people questioning the career choice she made, this may be partly because of examples that always depict her working as a teacher, a secretary (to a male manager), a receptionist, a social worker or a nurse – in short, doing jobs that are ‘an extension’ of her other sex roles.4 Indeed, as this research suggests, ←9 | 10→English dictionaries did next to nothing to convey a picture of a woman (and her potential and abilities) that would be more commensurate with what she – as observational data suggests – is capable of becoming.

On the other hand, if we re-examined the same scholarship from the perspective of the data collection methods its authors decided to employ, the only justified conclusion we would be able to reach is that none of the studies conducted so far allows for the formulation of conjectures concerning the actual exposure of an average dictionary user to sexist views the dictionaries that have been examined indeed contain. Stated otherwise, if we did try to evaluate the purported, potentially detrimental effect of a dictionary on the user’s psyche by focusing on only these passages about which we can be sure that the user has processed, it might turn out that the real exposure to sexist content is actually smaller than previous work into this issue suggests.

In what follows, I will be pursuing this lead, concentrating, by contrast to previous work on sex-role stereotyping in dictionaries of English, on the illustrative material included inside such entries that real-life dictionary users indeed consulted (or would be consulting in real-life situations of communicative deficit) and not those they would have seen had they ventured into a sample of the same entries that previous scholarship analyzed. Dictionary users normally do not process the whole dictionary, page after page and entry after entry – a data-collection methodology adopted by. e.g. Gershuny (1977) or Nielsen (1972). Scanning the contents of a certain section of a dictionary – a data collection procedure employed by, e.g. Cowie (1995) or Osuchowska (2015a; 2016) – would be equally unlikely. Applying this alternative data-collection methodology that has not been previously resorted to in any studies into the portrayal of women in dictionaries of English may thus bring about different conclusions – a hypothesis that will be tested with the help of 2000 user-selected dictionary entries looked up in a dictionary produced before 1970s – a time frame which qualifies it as probably as good an ‘androcentric’ dictionary as any reference work that was published prior to that date.

This study starts with a cursory overview of data on major forms of sex-based discriminatory practices contemporary working women fall victim to. Next, an overview of research which has posited a causal relationship between language, thought and behaviour is offered. As this literature suggests, language not only reproduces what people think – it also affects our thoughts and this effect language has on our cognition ultimately translates into our behaviour. If a contemporary woman is still denied promotion, often the only reason for this is – as research has shown – the stereotypical thinking according to which she does not possess the attributes that are needed in managing people. These stereotypical views surface clearly when we analyze the lexical choices speakers of language make when ←10 | 11→describing the representatives of both sexes – descriptions that ascribe her certain character traits simultaneously denying her the possession of others that – as we believe – only men have. In the third section of Chapter One, I present the results of studies that were launched with a view to establishing how dictionaries of English produced before the 1970s typically depicted a female. In the part that follows, I look at the issue again, this time from the perspective of a dictionary compiler, who, at one point, had to react to charges of propagating sexism that research on sex-role stereotyping in dictionaries concluded with. As I intend to show, many editors of the more recent versions of dictionaries of English are trying to introduce some modifications owing to which their representation of women will meet with more approval from the more gender-sensitive public. At the same time, introducing such changes may be difficult, if only because the statements that lexicographers reach for to next utilize them in the form of examples very often present a female in a stereotypical way, which is only natural when we consider the extent to which women are still discriminated against in and beyond the workplace.

In the main, analytical part of Chapter Two, I will present five profiles of a female that each of my five fictitious dictionary users would be exposed to had they indeed availed themselves of this very dictionary that has been chosen for the analysis. The profiles obtained in this way should help us determine whether the relatively high incidence of sexist constructions in this and other reference works representing the same time frame must indeed result in such a significant exposure to sexist views as previous research into sexism in dictionaries of English is implying. Before that, at the beginning of Chapter Two, I specify the most important methodological underpinnings of the study, including the details of the dictionary that served as a source of my data as well as the procedures employed in order to obtain the material to be examined.

Needless to say, should it prove that the user’s exposure to sexist views dictionaries of that period transmitted is not as significant as could be assumed on the basis of previous studies, it does not mean that dictionaries produced these days can feel absolved from all blame. Continuous exposure to certain statements and certain linguistic constructions on the part of speakers of language, can, on the evidence we have at our disposal, reinforce gender roles and the discrimination of women. Simultaneously, however, it seems unfair to imply a causal relationship between dictionary contents and the formation of sexist views in a situation when we still have no data that would confirm that the user has actually been exposed to its sexist content. Acting in the interest of greater ecological validity – a long-time postulate for all user-oriented studies – also holds for research into the cultural, and not just the linguistic content of a dictionary.

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1 All citations from the report reproduced above and in the subsequent sections of the study can be found at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/14/gender-discrimination-comes-in-many-forms-for-todays-working-women/.

Details

Pages
196
ISBN (PDF)
9783631846407
ISBN (ePUB)
9783631849378
ISBN (MOBI)
9783631849385
ISBN (Hardcover)
9783631843178
Language
English
Publication date
2021 (January)
Tags
occupational inequality stereotypes examples of use dictionaries of English sexism culture
Published
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 196 pp., 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Dorota Osuchowska (Author)

Dorota Osuchowska is Associate Professor at the Department of English Studies, the University of Rzeszów, where she lectures in Applied Linguistics, Lexicography and Academic English. Her research focuses on dictionary use by learners of English and phraseology in dictionaries for foreign learners.

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Title: Occupational Inequality and Sex-Role Stereotyping in Dictionaries of English: A Causal Link?