Oxford dictionary accused of perpetuating sexist stereotypes

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An Oxford University academic and OUSU’s Women’s Campaign have criticised the Oxford English Dictionary after a row on Twitter uncovered instances of “sexism” in the Dictionary.

The committee of WomCam told The Oxford Student it was “disappointing” to see that several of the Dictionary’s example sentences associate a particular gender with certain words. The example for the term “rabid”, for instance, is currently “a rabid feminist”. Other instances include the use of female pronouns in the example sentences for “nagging” and “nurse”, while male pronouns are associated with “Doctor” and “research”.

WomCam Committee said: “The writers of the OED must be aware that language is used in influencing society as well as reflecting it. The “real-world use” they cite as the reasoning behind their choices needs to be examined – we don’t live in a world where there are no women doctors or researchers, or no men in nursing or housework – if their world view is this narrow surely questions are raised about their suitability to the job. Erasing the lives, professions and feelings of women from a prominent platform is an active choice and is yet another example of the everyday structural oppression women face.”

Professor Deborah Cameron, a Professor of Language and Communication and Fellow of Worcester College, also criticised what she termed “a pattern of sexist stereotyping in the dictionary’s illustrative examples” on her blog (debuk.wordpress.com). In an additional exclusive comment made to The Oxford Student, however, she suggested that some of the examples had more justification than others.

“I think it’s reasonable for the entry for ‘nurse’ to use an example with ‘she’, as most examples in the source material being used probably have ‘she’, reflecting the fact that most nurses are women. But using ‘a rabid feminist’ as the primary example of metaphorical usage in an entry for ‘rabid’ is not reflecting the commonest use of the word.”

Oxford voices have weighed in on the matter after it gained widespread attention on Twitter. The discussion began after Canadian anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan (@OmanReagan) asked: “Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?”

The initial response by the official Oxford Dictionaries (@oxforddictionaries) Twitter account was to share a link to Oman-Reagan’s Medium post with the caption “If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism…” An apology was later posted on the same account, and in a press statement released to The Oxford Student, Oxford University Press admitted the initial tweet “ill-judged”.

The statement also noted that “[t]he example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press. That said, we are now reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage.”

Image: mrpolyonymous (CC BY SA 2.0)


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