International Women’s Day – a sociolinguistics perspective on sexism and inequalities

illustration with drawings of women

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. When writing this article, I was checking online for the exact name of this day, as in France the official day is titled ‘International Day for Women’s Rights’ (in French: Journée internationale des droits des femmes). I was surprised to find that English omits the ‘Rights’ aspect in the name. With this, we may think of the day as a celebration of women (which is also a great thing to do), forgetting it was first created to “uphold women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality” (United Nations).

The language we use matters. And unfortunately, when it comes to gender (in)equalities, sexism exists in and through languages on multiple levels. Understanding how English works and what discourses permeate our society is essential to fight back and create change.

Loaded Language

Consider using those two words to describe someone: cow and stud. What can be noticed in the different images that come to mind and what gender they are associated with? The following definitions can be found in Collins English Dictionary:

  • Stud: If you refer to a man as a stud, you mean that he is thought to be very active sexually and good at satisfying his partner’s sexual desires. [informal]
  • Cow: If someone describes a woman as a cow, they dislike her and think that she is unpleasant or stupid. [informal, offensive, disapproval]

In the metaphors available to describe women and men, derogatory images are frequently used to describe women. For instance, bitch, old biddy, and cow for women, but wolf and stud for men (Holmes, 2013).

This phenomenon of negative connotations for words often associated with women also works for gendered pairs of words: think about master/mistress, bachelor/spinster, host/hostess… More than often, the masculine word keeps its historical and neutral meaning, while the feminine equivalent becomes synonymous with loose sexuality or unattractiveness. This lexical asymmetry is not innate: negative connotations are acquired over time through a process of semantic derogation because of the (sexist) society language evolves in:

“Again and again in the history of the language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or a woman may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications… after a period of time becoming abusive and ending as a sexual slur”

Schulz, 1975, p. 65

These negative connotations have been researched extensively. Studies like those of Romaine (2001) or Baker (2008) examine the words surrounding bachelor and spinster in large collections of British and American texts, and find that spinster is often found with ‘sex-starved’, ‘frustrated’, ‘unattractive’ while bachelor has more neutral or positive co-occurences like ‘eligible’ or ‘a catch’.

“The connotations of words do not arise from words themselves but from how they are used in context. (…) Collocations transmit cultural meanings and stereotypes which have built up over time.”

Romaine, 2001, p. 160

Another level at which sexism manifests in language is through proverbs. Here are a few examples of proverbs about women’s linguistic behaviour in various languages, collected by Janet Holmes (1998, p. 41):

  • “Women’s tongues are like lambs tails — they are never still” (English)
  • “The north sea will sooner be found wanting water than a woman at a loss for words” (Jutlandic, variety of Danish)
  • “Where there are woman and geese there’s noise” (Japanese)
  • “Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man and a quiet woman” (Scottish)

Deeply rooted in those is the sexist idea that ‘women talk too much‘. But some studies have shown that women tend to speak less than men (especially in public spheres) and that it is when women’s contribution increases to the level of men’s that they are seen as ‘speaking too much’ (e.g. Herrig, Johnson & DiBendetoo, 1998). In fact, “the talkativeness of women has been gauged not in comparison with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.” (Spender, 1980, p. 41)

All that reflects something deeper. Sexism at the word level mirrors broader discourses and cultural values in society: “Word meanings don’t change in a social vacuum: they change when there’s a shift in our cultural narratives, the stories we use words to tell. What’s behind our negative reactions to ‘spinster’, and the consequent failure of attempts to rehabilitate it, is the negativity of the prevailing cultural narratives about both female ageing and women without men” (Cameron, 2019).

It is important to understand that sexism at the word level does not exist by virtue of the word itself, but through broader ideologies and repeated negative uses of such words: “the individual abusive term must be seen in the context of the discourses within the society as a whole which either affirm or contest sexism. (…) So damage cannot accrue from one usage but will only happen in the light of the combined effect of links between discourses and the position of institutions in relation to those discourses” (Mills, 2008 pp. 36-37).

A Question of Power

Thus, it is necessary to go beyond the word level to understand the social and cultural implications of the ways we use language and what discourses and ideologies are embedded in our linguistic practices.

Often, linguistic choices and patterns reflect broader power struggles between genders. Even in situations where social positions grant women the higher ground, studies have shown men tend to dominate with their talk. In a study around interrupting behaviour, results show men tend to do most of the interrupting in all situations: women doctors were consistently interrupted by their patients, while male doctors did most of the interrupting in their consultations (Candace West & Don Zimmerman, 1975).

Of course, such studies use statistical generalisations and variation within groups does occur. Especially, inequalities accumulate (see: intersectionality) and construct hierarchies where the white, rich, heterosexual, able man is often on top. Coates (2004) writes about the androcentric rule, stipulating that language (among others) is regulated by men, thus women and other minorities’ linguistic behaviour will be negatively judged while what men do is seen as normal. But also, a white, rich, heterosexual, able woman may hold more power in society than a Black woman or a woman living in poverty. Linguistically, this is reflected by negative interpretations of the speech of minorities in comparison to that of socially dominant groups. We can talk here about linguistic subordination (Wolfram & Schilling-Estes, 1998).

In two insightful articles on the website of ATD Fourth World UK, Eva Carrillo Roas writes about the experience of women in poverty and how they relate to feminism: “It is a common thing that Feminist discourses are centred around the white, cis, straight, rich, and abled women’s experience; and the voices of those who do not comply with those characteristics tend to be silenced.” Indeed, power is also in the hands of those who have the words and who can use them in public spheres (see: epistemic injustice). Hence “the crucial importance of listening first to girls and women who face the most social exclusion. They are the ones who can teach society how to use rights as a starting point to benefit everyone” (Carrillo Roas, 2023).

What next?

Languages change, words evolve, and meanings shift. It is possible to create new forms to replace sexist usages (think of the singular they that is replacing the generic he, or Ms that replaces Miss and Mrs as an equivalent to Mr). But with linguistic changes has to come systemic shifts. There is no use for language campaigns without social change campaigns aimed at achieving narrative and systemic changes.

“However, surely it needs to be understood that when we make accusations of sexism we are not simply claiming to be ‘injured by language’. What we are injured by is a system which seems to condone such discrimination, and viewing this particular instance of sexism as indicative of wider social discrimination.” (Mills 2008)

What we can do with language is to create new narratives on gender and gender equality, and amplify the voices of people in subordinate groups and people experiencing discrimination. And with that, continue the fight for women and minorities’ rights, to create a fairer society.


Some research describing “man” versus “woman” talk, especially older articles, describes women’s and men’s interaction patterns in Western English-speaking communities, and most of the data come from white middle-class adult speakers. Again, this mirrors the idea that this community is the norm (see my section on power), and they are thus to be read critically.

A final note on gender. This article uses the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ a lot, because most studies are using these two categories. However, I agree that gender exists on a spectrum. It is also not something we ‘have’ but rather ‘construct’ and ‘perform’. Creating a space for non-cis individuals in such studies is definitely something that has to be done more and more.

Click here to unfold the list of References for this article.

Baker, P. (2008). Sexed textsLanguagegender and sexuality. London: Equinox.

Bolinger, D. (1980). Language – the loaded weapon: The use and abuse of language today. London and New York: Longman.

Cameron, D. (2019). “The spinster returns?”. language: a feminist guide.

Carrillo Roas, E. (2023), “Women’s day blog post: ‘The privilege of protesting’”. ATD Fourth World UK,

Coates, J. (2004). Women, Men and Language: A Sociolinguistic Account of Gender Differences in Language (3rd ed.).

Herring, S., Johnson, D. & DiBenedetto, T.. (1992). Participation in electronic discourse in a “feminist” field. Locating Power: Proceedings of the Second Berkeley Women and Language Conference.

Holmes, J. (2013). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (4th ed.). Routledge.

”International Women’s Day 2023”, ATD Fourth World UK,♀-day-2023/

Mills, S. (2008). Language and Sexism. Cambridge University Press

Romaine, S. (2001) “English. A corpus-based view of gender in British and American English”, in Gender Across Languages, pp 153-175

Schulz, M. (1975). The Semantic Derogation of Woman. New York: Thorne and Henley.

Spender, D. (1980). Man Made Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wolfram, W., and Schilling-Estes, N. (1998). “American English.” Language in Society 24, Oxford: Blackwell.

Zimmerman, D. H., and West, C., (1975). “Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation”, in Towards a Critical Sociolinguistics (1996).

The featured image of this article was created on by myself with art from Pablo Stanley and Karthik Srinivias