United Statesman

A few years ago, while attending the NSNorth 2013 conference in Ottawa, a fellow Canadian friend and I talked about one of the speakers we’d heard the night before. “Did you notice,” my friend said, “how when he was referring to business owners he kept calling them businessmen?” I had noticed, and it stuck out to me like a thorn. In fact, I’d been noticing this a whole bunch since moving to the US in January of 2013.

When I was growing up in Canada, I remember saying something like “the policeman” and being corrected by my mother. “We don’t say policeman, we say police officer because there are women who are police, too.” I was like, five years old, but that made sense. “What about a fireman?” I asked, to which my mother replied “We say firefighter instead.” And on goes the list, * councillor* instead of councilman, chairperson instead of chairman, letter-carrier instead of postman. There’s no need to gender these professions, just like we don’t have “dentistman” or “lawyerman.”

But in the States, I’ve noticed the language here is much more gendered. The NSNorth speaker repeatedly referred to businessmen, but I hear it on the news and in everyday conversation all the time. At the very least, it’s good that if a woman holds the given gendered-job, she’ll be referred to as a “chairwoman” but it just seems unnecessary to begin with. Plus, by using gender-binary terms, it leaves out people who don’t identify as “man” or “woman” and reinforces those as the only two acceptable ends of the gender spectrum.

Now I’m not saying “all Americans use gendered terms” and I’m also not saying “all Canadians use non-gendered terms,” I’m merely saying, anecdotally, I’ve observed more gendered language in the US than in Canada.

This isn’t an attempt to police language, but I am trying to point it out so you can think about it, reflect on your own language usage, and how it affects others. It feels like a small thing, but language matters, especially in the software industry, where we’re majorly suffering from a lack of diversity.

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