No Ladies, No Gentlemen: On Gendering a Room Full of People

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“Ladies and gentlemen”, as I nearly addressed a room full of students the other day.  It wouldn’t have been a particularly egregious error, but I substituted another greeting instead.  I’ve been thinking about the implications of that greeting – how it makes assumptions about class and about gender – and wondering how one should greet a collection of people.  Assuming “right, you lot” and “learned fellow citizens of the Republic of Letters” are unworkable.

One way of solving this might be to expand the list: ladies, gentlemen, men, women, genderqueer people, and individuals who don’t fall into those categories.  But this is also unworkable: it has a satirical air.  Riffing on such an established formula makes it sound as if a joke is being made.  The inevitable implication would be that “ladies” and “gentlemen” are the reasonable categories, and those used to include others were add-ons.  Whatever the intention, I think it would sound slighting, and the very opposite of inclusive.

But there is another reason why expanding that list, particularly in an institutional setting like a lecture hall, doesn’t make sense.  This is highlighted by a study Cordelia Fine cites as part of her memorable take-down of sexism in Delusions of Gender:

Recent work by Rebecca Bigler and colleagues has shown that this is especially the case when groups are made visually distinct and authority figures use and label the groups.  In one study, three- to five-year-old preschoolers in two child-care classrooms were randomly assigned to the Blue group or the Red group.  Over a three-week period all the children wore a red  or blue T-shirt every day (according to the group to which they’d been assigned.)  In one classroom the teachers left it at that.  The colour groups were never mentioned again.  But in the other classroom, the teachers made constant use of the two categories.  Children’s cubicles were decorated with blue and red labels, at the door they were told to line up with Blues on this side and Reds on the other, and they were regularly referred to by group label (‘Good morning, Blues and Reds’).  At the end of the three weeks, the experimenters canvassed each child’s opinion on a number of matters.  They found that being categorised as a Red or a Blue for just three weeks was enough to bias children’s view.  The children, for example, preferred toys they were told were liked by their own group and expressed a greater desire to play with other Red (or Blue) children.  While some forms of favouritism were common to all the children, more was seen in kids from the classroom in which teachers had made a bigger deal out of the Red versus Blue dichotomy.

“Good morning, Blues and Reds”.  That made me stop and think.  Though I’m careful to try to take gender issues into account whilst teaching, it had never struck me how a greeting – even when it included everyone in the room, or seemed to – might be reinforcing the problem.  Addressing a group of students (or colleagues) as “ladies and gentlemen” would subtly imply that their gender was their defining feature: that before all else, I regarded them as gendered.  Whether or not my language was suitably inclusive, I was rather missing the point.  I wouldn’t address a lecture hall as “Hullo, English Studies students, and those of you taking Joint Honours degrees!”  I wouldn’t begin a seminar with “I’m delighted to see you, British and EU citizens, and also our International students from other regions.”  I certainly wouldn’t usually begin a speech “Dear gay and lesbian students, heterosexual students, bisexual students and asexual students”.  In each case it would sound as if I was making a particular point.  And my audience would be entirely justified in raising an eyebrow to question exactly why I was implying that those distinctions mattered about them.

This is not to suggest a naive “I just don’t see gender” attitude.  Gender inequality and the disadvantaging of female students is one of the major issues facing higher education at the moment.  It’s particularly pressing in my field, which combines a sophisticated set of theoretical discourses around gender with a student body made up mostly of women and a culture which still often assumes that men are the “default” gender.  Recognising the gendered experience of the institutions we work within is part of naming the problem, and a necessary step towards dealing with it.

But Fine’s work made me suddenly aware of the ways in which many interactions are gendered in ways which can’t simply be solved by inclusivity.  Why should I gender my students with my first words to them?  When too much of society assumes that most fields – sport, business, literature, politics – are “for men”, young women might feel that they are too often addressed by their gender only when it marks them out as different from the dominant model.  When, for example, an author is framed on a course as “a woman writer”, or an advert assumes that they will spend their time thinking about shopping.  It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that “woman” is simply a description of their gender, given the way it is enmeshed in relationships of power.

Reminding them of their gender, particularly in an environment where women are the targets of belittling attitudes and sexual harassment, might sound as if I am hurrying to put them into a box which marks them out as different.  As if, before they set off on their triumphal tour of the capital city of that Republic of Letters, I was the clown muttering in their ear “Remember, you are only a woman.”  It made me wonder about the way a gendered greeting placed a specific identity around the people in the room, and why I automatically assumed that listing some genders was the way to greet fellow literature types.  And as I was typing up this draft, I found this thread on Mumsnet, where all of this had been said rather better, including the reference to Cordelia Fine…

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