Language is important, especially for our children

The other day I was sitting at a dining table with a well-known politician. He said, “All men between the ages of 22 and 50 should work.” I knew his intention: We Americans should value an industrious culture.

I turned to my friend and colleague, an elderly white man, and said, “Did he really just say only men should work?” My friend said, “Come on Deeptee, you know what he meant.” Even mine Mann said that I was overly picky and that I was primed by my feminist lens.

Maybe this politician said, “Everyone between the ages of 22 and 50 should work.” But I worry about what my 2-year-old daughter would have heard. Would she have heard the politician say that women might not have the same ambitions as men? Had she heard that women are not welcome in the workforce? Or don’t you belong?

As a spine surgeon, entrepreneur and mom, I sit at many different tables. We all know that gender stereotypes exist, that men are more likely to be promoted than women, and that the pay gap is real. In 2020, the Pew Research Center found that women make 84 cents for every dollar men make, even if they have equivalent jobs.

If we want to change that, I argue: language is important. English was created in a society rooted in stereotypical gender norms and as such gender asymmetries and male generics in particular are rife. For example, the pronoun “he” can be used when gender is irrelevant or unknown. However, feminine forms are not used universally and refer specifically to women only. The use of male generics only serves as another homage to our society’s gender hierarchy, which gives men more power than women. On the way to a more gender-equitable society, we must change our language. Gender-fair language aims to break down gender stereotyping and discrimination by neutralizing it, for example by using the term “police officer” instead of “policeman”.

Here are three tables we can sit at each day and pay attention to our language to create spaces and conversations that foster ambition and inclusivity among our peers and children and everyone in between.

your desk

One of the OR schedulers sent an email to all of our department’s nursing staff saying, “Please ask your surgeon if they would like additional surgery time in the next few weeks.” Well, it’s true, most surgeons in our department are indeed “he”. I am the only female spine surgeon and one of very few orthopedic surgeons in my department.

I am sure that the email sender had no malicious intent when sending the email. I am looking at this sentence in the historical context of the English language and may be using the word “he” as a generic pronoun. Nonetheless, especially in the context of a department that is more than 90% surgeons, such language makes women surgeons feel left out. The same comments apply to any organization with a dominant majority – e.g. executives, investors, service companies.

When sending emails, think critically about how you communicate with your co-workers. The use of gender-neutral pronouns avoids the exclusion of the gender minorities in the group and promotes a sense of belonging.

The panel/podium

When I attend women-specific events, be it panels or conferences, I often lead a session on work-life balance. I also get a lot of calls from aspiring surgeons asking what it’s like to be a surgeon and a mother. In contrast, I go to a lot of conferences mostly with men, and we never talk about parenting or housework. And I don’t seem to get these calls from aspiring male surgeons.

These conversations are indeed critical, especially in our post-COVID world. However, they often have a female-specific character, for example the need for working women to outsource house cleaning. On the surface, these talks appear to be well-intentioned efforts to free women from everyday household chores. But they are fundamentally anchored by the same restrictive, normative, stereotyped gender assumptions: housework and childcare are inherently female jobs.

We need to change the narrative. I contend that these conversations are important for everyone, both men and women. I applaud those, like my male partner, who just last week asked me to lead a discussion on this topic at a national, male-dominated conference. Let’s move these discussions into the mainstream and remove the stigma surrounding work-life balance issues as an issue that only affects women.

The dining table at home

My two-year-old daughter and I spend most evenings around the dining table reading books and enjoying our meals together. Perhaps my experiences as one of only about 50 orthopedic spine surgeons in the country, combined with my tiger mother instinct, have made me overly vigilant to any suggestion that might prevent my daughter from pursuing her dreams, whatever they may be close.

While reading one of Richard Scarry’s books aloud, we found that page after page every professional, with the exception of the nurse and the barber, was portrayed as a male character. When we finally stumbled upon a page that said, “A mother’s work is never done,” followed by drawings of the mother vacuuming, I had to close the cover of this classic childhood favorite.

Since then, I’ve discovered many more encouraging modern books that exemplify women who are changing the world. But nonetheless, I also learned that the images portrayed in this book by Richard Scarry are still carried by children today. The 7-year-old daughter of one of the nurses I work with was shocked to learn that her mother works with a surgeon.

Coming back to this politician’s words: I want my daughter to have the luxury of making career decisions when the time is right for her — whether as a full-time parent or as a C-suite executive. If she grows up with a mindset locked in by normative gender stereotypes, she won’t have the freedom to make those choices because she won’t believe she can. Therefore, as a culture, we need to remain conscious of the specific words and language that children hear. I hope that as my daughter grows, our culture will not only continue to evolve to support her ambitions, but to develop her by believing that she can achieve anything she wants.

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