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The Assumption That ‘They’ Are ‘Him’ and How Language Pulls Us Down

In a world entrenched with a long-standing tradition of male-centric language, an urgent inquiry emerges into the pervasive biases perpetuated by linguistic norms. From the use of masculine pronouns to the exclusionary dominance of the word 'MAN,' the question lingers: Who decided that men should represent the entire world?

“The Mark of a Great Man is one...”,

“Man is not what he thinks, he is…”,

“When the man cannot choose...”

It has been a long standing tradition of huMANity, to use the masculine pronoun as one to integrate and include, all the humans on earth. Well, why should it be the male pronouns and the word ‘MAN’, that has to be the centre of the world? Whose idea was it to make men the representation of the entire world?

The Spanish, ‘Latino’ is used to appropriate all people of Spanish or Latin American descent, but it is crucial to note that it is the masculine version of the word ‘Latinx’ which is gender-neutral. The feminine version being, ‘Latina’.

Gender bias is not only a new problem in our society but has existed undisturbed in the various chapters of HIStory. To phrase Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of America, “I believe in the equality of Man; And I believe […] in doing justice, loving mercy and endeavouring to make our fellow creatures happy”. After such a touching speech, it turned out that the word ‘man’ was quite literal here. Women didn’t get the right to vote until about 150 years after American Independence.

The Personal Data Protection Bill of 2022 was an innovative measure from the Indian government which uses the pronouns ‘She’ and ’Her’ as a general representation of the entire population of India. This, although a huge step forward for the Indian government, is a tiny achievement in the face of the decades of tortuous hold humanity had on women’s freedom as well as that of the Enby (non-binary) community.

Gender bias has been (or actually hasn’t been) the topic of discussion for quite some time. India is far from being a perfectly egalitarian democracy, but a majority of the problem arises from the utter lack of trying until the very last minute.

A picture of an NCERT Textbook where gender stereotypical roles are assigned to family members.
A picture from a Byju’s Grade 10 Math workbook, signifying the use of an unspecified person (“a retailer”) which is, without context, assigned a ‘he’ pronoun.

And this utter lack of trying bleeds out from the government to the other sectors of business in India. We can find fingerprints of gender bias in places such as the Job Market and its unequal pay, Pink Taxes in the consumers department and many more. The most polluted sector is textbooks, filled with gender bias which equalises women with men by using the masculine pronoun ridiculously demeans and dismisses their existence.

“Even now, 2 years after graduating from high school, I still think of a guy when someone talks about a doctor or an engineer", says an anonymous interviewee who kindly gave us her time to enunciate more on the problems of gender bias creeping up into the education system.
She also said, “One of the toppers in our class, unparalleled in studies, not only is unaware of basic knowledge about periods but also gets flustered and refuses to discuss them. He is a grade 12 biology student.”

Such is the immaculate ‘system’ that is praised, nay worshipped by the older generations that do not care about gender bias or appropriation.

For generations, a belief that masculine nouns and pronouns should be employed in situations where the gender of the subject(s) remains ambiguous or fluid, has been ingrained into English speakers and writers.

This deeply entrenched stereotype has been examined by researcher Theresa Redl in her eye-opening study titled 'The male bias of a generically-intended masculine pronoun: Evidence from eye-tracking and sentence evaluation.' Redl's findings illuminate the extent to which the use of masculine possessive pronouns perpetuates a distinct male-bias in generic sentences. Consider, for instance, the oft-encountered textbook phrases, such as "when one sets his mind to something, nothing is unattainable" or "a person shall be eligible for election as President when he..."

These seemingly innocuous statements reinforce the notion that boundless possibilities exist solely for the male populace, while relegating other genders to a perpetual state of struggle and survival amidst a world governed by tooth and claw.

To all the people that read this, maybe this has inspired you to make changes in the world towards the better appropriation of women and the non-binary genders. But, if it hasn’t, I ask you to ponder, ‘Would it be okay if someone didn’t consider my opinions worthy of consideration?’

Written by Sidhanth Gaddam

This article was written as part of a 3-part series in collaboration with Project Educating the Educators. ProjectETE is a community dedicated to ensuring that curriculum textbooks are fair, accurate, and unbiased. They believe that every student deserves access to high-quality, inclusive education that reflects the diversity of their experiences and the world around them.

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