Schools are full of harmful sexist language

We’re inadvertently reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes every day, including with the use of ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’

gender schools

As an ex-English teacher, I am fully aware just what a paradox our language is: simultaneously organic and full of rules.

Our choice of vocabulary can repel or bring people together and its meaning can change several times within a lifetime. 

Language is also one of the most powerful means of reinforcing gender discrimination and sexism in our schools.


Quick read: Are your class books reinforcing gender stereotypes?

Quick listen: Talkin proper? The standard English snobbery in schools

Want to know more? What Miss really means


But it can, equally and easily, be a force for good, for social revolution and evolution.  

When the topic of gender in language is brought up, there are always people who grasp for the fact that defaulting to the masculine singular is actually, technically grammatically correct. 

This can be in the “little” things, like how we name insects that buzz around us (“he”) or in terms of how we address people in authority. But this is not a Spag issue. It is an unnecessary tradition and a means of bias that we often do not think to address. It’s not “PC gone mad" (*eye roll*). 

The meaning of 'Miss'

Let’s start with how teachers are addressed. I have been called “Miss” for nearly two decades and never questioned why. Until now. It turns out that “Miss” comes from a time when women were encouraged/pressurised into quitting work after they got hitched (schools would only hire single female teachers).

Compare with the origins of “Sir”. This was initially used in the 16th century by male teachers, of a lower class, to reinforce their authority among (largely) upper-class boys. The difference is huge and yet they sit together in modern education.

But this is a UK thing. The way students around the world address their teachers is often rooted in a far more inclusive and respectful history. In Portugal, like in Mandarin, there is a single word for teacher for both genders. 

Some countries, like Germany, use different titles for different age phrases of students rather than the genders of teachers. Holland and Australia generally use first names to secure relationships. In Brazil, the family noun of tia/tio (auntie/uncle) is used as a sign of the highest respect. 

The messages that we are therefore giving young people in the UK about us as a profession, and our genders, ultimately illustrates the difference between the sexes from the start. It’s time for a rebrand. 

Terms of endearment

Graham Andre learned this during the making of the BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls when his classroom was filmed. Using terms of endearment like “love” and “mate”, although meant well, had real consequences for the students under his care.

“Each time I used a term of endearment (which was quite often – 146 times in a 90-minute session) I was giving the signal that, not only were boys and girls are different, but the girls were sweet and lovely, and the boys were the opposite: my friend, masculine, adventurous,” he says. 

“I thought it would be a difficult change, but now I just use their names. If you are working with children, think about the language you are using to address them. You could maybe record yourself, or get observed. It can only be good for our children.”

Family affair

Sometimes, it is important to illustrate the difference in gender. Little words can pack big meaning – being aware of the issues can mean focusing upon splitting genders or even avoiding using gender- or sex-based terms at all. 

Dr Jeremy Davies, head of communications at the Fatherhood Institute and project lead on the MITEY campaign says growing numbers of schools are noticing dads' involvement in their children's education, and are realising "mum" is not always the (appropriate) word. 

"Teachers might unthinkingly instruct children to give a school letter to mum, as if she's the only parent who might be responsible enough to deal with it.

"One might think that changing 'mum' to 'parent' could solve this. But in fact it isn't that helpful. The best way to be inclusive is to use the F-word – father! People read 'parent' as meaning 'mum' because they're so much more visible, so best is to mention both mum and dad.”

It is key to educate yourself on all fronts here; when it comes to gender, society is very much fluid when it comes to language – we are educating ourselves on how to be more inclusive and respectful of those around us through difficult conversations, knowing our blind spots, creating new traditions and being open to learning.

The r/evolution is here, so word up. 

Top tips:

  1. Consider the terms and phrases you use: are they inclusive and unisex, or careless? Which words could you use instead?

  2. Notice the language of your community: how do staff, students and parents all refer to one another? And how can you make this more inclusive?

  3. Do you have a policy for language at your setting? How can you ensure a consistent experience for your students?

Nicole Ponsford is a digital education specialist and founder of The Gender Equality Collective. She is on Twitter @nicoleponsford

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