Girlboss, Grievance, and Gender Bias

The vocabulary of gender bias subtly dominates professional fields and diminishes a person’s view on a woman’s ability to perform her job.

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Instead of “woman scientist,” why not just say scientist? In traditionally male-dominated fields such as STEM, gender-specific terms are often used to describe women even though the original terms are gender neutral to begin with. We see this phenomena with phrases such as “female doctor,” “woman engineer,” and “girl mechanic,” which are subtly used everyday. In a field that is viewed as masculine, vocabulary is used to point out that women are outsiders and reduce them to their gender. The subtext is clear: men are the standard.

There is a similar erasure of femininity in the media. If a woman is in a stereotypically masculine field, such as firefighting, she is portrayed as less feminine. The “strong female character” is often only respected by her male counterparts on screen because she is emotionless or harsh or hates anything feminine. This representation suggests to girls watching that approval will only come if they are not “girly.” We see the toll this societal sexism takes on young girls, such as in the notorious “pick-me girl,” who rejects and looks down on traditional femininity in order to gain male validation. Though social media uses the term satirically, people often fail to notice that these girls’ behavior is due to internalized misogyny that they see and take in on a daily basis. They see that approval only comes if they show their distaste for “ditzy,” “frivolous,” and “shallow” girls, who are portrayed negatively for embracing their femininity.

Women in positions of leadership also get labeled differently from men. An example is the infamous term “girlboss,” which is now portrayed more ironically on social media, but when used sincerely, portrays a woman’s position as superficial. Similar terms like SHE-EO take away from original, neutral words like CEO, once again differentiating women from their men counterparts. The change in a woman’s title doesn’t show “girl power.” It shows how these positions of leadership are coded as male. When Hillary Clinton ran for president, people debated whether she would be referred to as “woman president,” even though the term “president” isn’t gendered at all. Expressions like these undermine a woman’s capability in her field and belittle her role in comparison to a man’s.

On the other hand, if a woman chooses to label herself as such, it is her decision to make. The Scientific American points out that it can help raise awareness for the lack of women in particular fields, such as STEM. A woman describing herself as a “woman scientist” on social media can help point out her existence to younger generations and help destigmatize said field for girls. There is nothing inherently wrong with a woman describing herself as such in a professional circumstance. The problem arises when someone else does it, thereby dismissing her and bringing her gender into a conversation in which it doesn’t need to be specified.

Gender neutral language is easy to integrate, and by confronting our own sexist vocabulary, we can slowly move toward equality. Showing young girls that women make accomplishments in areas that they’ve only ever seen as male is important, and treating women in those areas the same as their men counterparts is equally important. A woman’s femininity and ability to do her job are not related, and gendered terms shouldn’t be pointlessly used to describe her.