I am far from a Women’s Studies professor, but I do consider myself a feminist and went to a women’s college, so I am fairly tuned in to gendered language and sexist thought. Although, I surprise myself regularly with gendered pronouns in unexpected places and once I noticed this trend I thought I needed to acknowledge it (here) and then remedy it (everywhere).
During college I remember reading a lot about how gendered language influences children’s concept development and leads to socialization of gender roles. Seemingly innocent presumptions that boys drive cars and girls play with dolls become self-fulfilling prophecies. As I raise my own children I am conscious of the ways that we consciously and unconsciously socialize their gender roles.
The place where I had not thought much about this though was at work. I tend to use open-ended questions with kids so I do not presume that they like dolls or trucks, but rather follow their lead. However, I noticed that gendered language started to creep in when I was talking about colleagues within my own profession. Parents would tell me that they saw another doctor and I would often ask, “what was his name?” only then to have them respond with her name. It continued with other professionals, like the occupational therapist that I referred to as her (it was him) and the dentist who was her instead of him. These gendered pronouns correspond with the genders of the professionals I have the most experience with from my childhood. I had a male pediatrician and dentist and most of the occupational therapists I have met have been women.
Besides being biased by my own personal experiences, I wondered, how far off my gender stereotypes were from reality? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), 71% of pediatricians under 35 years old are female, compared to only 30% of those over 65 years old. Coming down the pipeline, 47% of medical school graduates are women. So while there are still slightly more male physicians, pediatricians are more likely to be female, especially now. However, only 18-23% of Pennsylvania dentists are women. On the other hand, 85-91% of occupational therapy students in 2011 were women. So I learned that my gender stereotypes were supported by the statistics. That still did not make it right though.
What message does my gendered language send to my young patients? Should they learn that although they have a female pediatrician that I assume most other doctors are male? Should dentists also be male? Are people in more caring professions with lower salaries automatically women? It bothered me every time I was caught in one of these sexist presumptions and felt the impressionable eyes of my young patients absorbing it all.
So I will continue giving out princess coloring papers to boys, Spiderman stickers to girls, and take care not to assume the gender of my colleagues when choosing my pronouns. While all of the pediatric dentists I know in my area are men, I now make sure to ask what a child’s dentist’s name is rather than what his name is and the importance of this was reinforced when one of my recent patients informed me that she would like to be a dentist. I remember being that little girl and telling my pediatrician that one day I would share his career.