Sexist Language is No Joke


David Magnus, PhD

Publish date

Sexist Language is No Joke
Tag(s): Editor's pick
Topic(s): Gender Disparities Professionalism

Though this post is about sexist language, I will start with a brief foray into linguistics and philosophy of language that will be relevant to what follows. Locutionary acts are utterances and their intended meaning. Illocutionary acts are what is done through the utterance. For example, the Illocutionary act of marrying two people can be done by saying “I now pronounce you married” in the right context, by the right person, to the right people, with the right paperwork done. The perlocutionary act is the impact that the locution has on the listeners or audience, regardless of the speaker’s intent.  For example, I say, “Can you pass the salt?”, which is literally a question but typically meant as a request. The illocution is whether I actually made a request, and the perlocutionary act is the impact of the locution on the person I am speaking to (e.g., they pass me the salt, or tell me that there is already enough salt in the food, or they worry that I eat too much salt). 

Egregious Behavior

At a department faculty retreat for a clinical department at my institution, a senior faculty member effectively silenced a more junior female colleague (who also happens to be a bioethicist) by calling her an “an ignorant sl__” (rhymes with “shut”). This egregious behavior was in front of over 20 colleagues. No one at the time took any action at all, but subsequently, the institution and many individuals who were present offered support. The senior faculty member has been suspended from all clinical, teaching, and research duties and from stepping foot in the workplace.

This behavior (though shocking) is not a surprise. Indeed, horror stories from women in academia and medicine demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexist and misogynistic behaviors. A recent AAMC report found in its survey of 13,239 full and part-time faculty that 34% of women experienced sexual harassment, most frequently “gender putdowns and telling of sexist and offensive jokes.” 

“But “was it a joke?”

What surprised and disappointed me were the responses of several highly regarded colleagues who asked, “was it a joke?” or “was he joking?” and referenced an old Saturday Night Live routine from the 1970’s where Dan Akroyd would utter this offensive expression as part of a “Point/Counter-point” debate with Jane Curtin. 

When one of my colleagues at the Center organized a group to write a letter calling on our administration to issue a public statement that condemns using offensive language that demeans women, such as this type of utterance. Over 100 faculty quickly signed. This is an exceedingly modest request, considering a lack of harassment should be the workplace standard. The dean released a statement within 48 hours of receipt of the letter. 

Sadly, “was it a joke?” is not just an idle question as several of my colleagues were at least initially reluctant to sign the letter and had questions about the context of the utterance. Was it meant as a joke? Who among the signees witnessed the behavior to provide that context? They focused on the locutionary act (the intent of the speaker) and illocutionary act (whether the context meant it was a joke).

A number of years ago at a large, pediatric bioethics meeting, a prominent senior person in our field much more explicitly referenced the SNL routine to a female colleague at a public meeting, calling her “ignorant S-word.”  The recipient, having an otherwise very respectful relationship with the speaker, took no offense. Many members of the audience at that event, however, were shocked and appalled, wondering if they should expect the same treatment at other bioethics events. 

Focused on the wrong actor

The AAMC report highlights inappropriate behaviors including referring to people of a gender in offensive, vulgar, or insulting terms; being put down or condescended to because of gender; and telling sexist jokes that were offensive to the people who were targeted. The frustrating response to the letter from my colleagues was that they focused on the wrong actor in the exchange. They couldn’t recognize that it didn’t matter whether the person doing it was joking or whether he thought it was funny. What matters (as AAMC recognizes) is its impact on the target (as well as other people present). What matters in considerations of sexist and inappropriate language is its perlocutionary effects, not the nature of the locution (the intent of the speaker) or the even the nature of the illocutionary act. In short, whether the act is a joke is completely irrelevant to the offensive, sexist and discriminatory nature of the encounter. 

This utterance can have myriad negative perlocutionary effects. First, in this case, the target felt harassed and must deal with all the sequelae of the encounter (filling complaints, recounting the experience to others). Other people in the room may also experience negative emotional consequences from the utterance. There may be an implied message that such sexist language is permissible and that the targeted woman and women in general, should not be respected in the same way as men. This could have a damaging impact on everyone in the room and on the group’s culture. 

We tolerate sexist language more than racist language

It is almost impossible to imagine a white physician or faculty member using racist language in a joke to a Black colleague or student and not have that result in instant and universal condemnation. While institutional racism remains a problem, at least recognizing the negative perlocutionary effects of racist language has been made. Sadly, the response to the letter from my colleagues indicates that when it comes to sexism, we haven’t made it as far. From now on, we should consider the “S-word” off-limits and focus on the impact on the targets of sexist language, not the speaker’s purported intent. It is the impact on the target that matters, not the intent of the speaker. 

This will be hard for older, white men like me who I suspect identify with the senior faculty speaker more than the victims of sexist language. Focusing on the intention of the speaker rather than the impact on the victim blames victims by discrediting and delegitimizing the harm caused. This shift in linguistic gaze is a minimal step in recognizing and improving behavior in the workplace. When women say that something is demeaning, upsetting, or inappropriate, we should believe them rather than rush to justify the intent of the speaker. 

Name the sexism

It is also imperative that bystanders to sexist language and behavior do more than look uncomfortable and ignore the situation. An outstanding article in NEJM by Michelle Mello and Reshma Jagsi highlights many concrete steps that bystanders can take to help address sexist, racist, or other inappropriate language that occurs. Many of these address ways to improve organizational behavior and culture. But one of the steps is for bystanders to “name the behavior as inappropriate on the spot.” This is asking a lot of the more junior bystanders. But senior people in the field (and especially senior white men) have no excuse not to call out this type of behavior in public as it is occurring. The burden of addressing sexist language should not fall solely on its victims.  

David Magnus, PhD is the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Bioethics and Director, Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

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