When Words Have Sex

My favourite riddle as a child went as follows:

A boy and his father are in a terrible car accident. The boy is rushed into hospital for life-saving surgery. The surgeon enters, looks at the boy and says, “I cannot operate, this child is my son.” Who is the surgeon?

Ok, it’s not much of a riddle but it made an impression on me aged 9, because it was one of the few riddles or jokes I knew that couldn’t be translated into Portuguese for my friends to enjoy with me. The riddle is only ‘difficult’ in English because it relies on our assumption that surgeons are male. Not that the Portuguese are inherently less sexist when it comes to women in job roles that are traditionally held by men, but because the language itself tells you whether the surgeon was male or female; whether the surgeon is “um médico-cirurgião” or “uma médica-cirurgiã” is already part of the story.

Having grown up immersed in a language without gender-neutral words, I find it strange that I don’t get an indication of gender in professional titles in English. For one thing, knowing that I’m here to meet “a professora” (the female teacher) makes it somewhat easier to spot her. It’s also amusing when making contraception appointments that the receptionist makes sure to tell me that they’ll book it with a “lady doctor” (define lady?).

There’s an argument that knowing ahead of time that the doctor, teacher, journalist, [insert job-title here] is a woman may lead to discrimination, whereas a unisex title confers respect and authority regardless of gender. According to the entries sent to Everyday Sexism, however, female specialists and doctors are often mistaken for the nurse, with patients telling them, even after an introduction and lengthy discussion of their case, that they’ll wait to ask their questions of the doctor. If they had known in advance that the doctor would be a woman their discrimination might have been less subtle and unthinking – and it could be addressed head-on.

Of course what I’m suggesting here is impractical. We can’t suddenly introduce a slew of female versions of job titles into the English language to resolve the problem. But hiding the woman behind the male word is doing little to change assumptions that are largely shaped by language.

NB. I am using a very basic male/female divide based on biology here and I understand that it doesn’t begin to cover the range of gender identities of which people avail themselves. Trying to do so would a) take this post on an unintended tangent, b) fail miserably because I’m not informed enough to do justice to that discussion.