Saturday 14 November 2009

Gender Studies

The UK Government’s Treasury Select Committee has recently conducted an enquiry into “Women in the City” (which, until I checked the Committee’s homepage, I was convinced was called “Sexism and the City”, in homage to the television series Sex and the City; I was rather disappointed to find out that this was not the case). The enquiry is part of a broader debate about equality and the role of women in business, which has seen much written about “gender diversity”, “gender-related differences” and “gender pay gaps”.

One might have expected such language to be greeted with peevish letters from linguistic prescriptivists. Only a few years ago, this was still something that troubled newspaper readers, like the correspondent who ticked off the Guardian’s leader writers for confusing “the word sex (biology) with gender, a grammatical term for a linguistic oddity confined, I think, to Indo-European languages”; or the one who wrote to the Sunday Telegraph in 2003 citing Fowler’s edict that “gender is a grammatical term only”.

But the complaints, unless there has simply been a collective decision not to publish them, seem to have stopped. This suggests that “gender” is now accepted as a synonym for “sex”, particularly in social or cultural (as opposed to biological) contexts. It may be because it is useful to be able to make this distinction. It may also be because “sex” has become so associated with the act of having sex that some people prefer “gender” as less smutty: in an article on the subject, Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch imagines the frustration of pollsters after “finding the "Sex" blank on a form filled in with "Yes, please" for the jillionth time”.

“Gender” hasn’t edged out “sex” entirely – “sexism”, despite dating back less than a hundred years in its present sense, is firmly ensconced in the language, as are phrases like “sexual politics” and “single-sex school”. But in many other phrases, particularly newer ones or ones to do with feminism, “gender” may make more sense than “sex”. “Gender diversity” is much less ambiguous than “sexual diversity”, which is now almost always used to mean “diversity of sexual orientation”. And “sex studies” would mean something entirely different from “gender studies”.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gender” is a “modern euphemism” for “sex”, it cites examples of the usage going back to the fourteenth century. In 1709, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (above) wrote that “of the fair sex… my only consolation for being of that gender has been the assurance it gave me of never being married to any one among them”, while an 1896 edition of the Daily News expressed the admirably enlightened opinion that “as to one's success in the work one does, surely that is not a question of gender”.

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