Sexism can be a subtle thing. It can even manifest itself in how we introduce a couple. Do we say the male’s name first, or the female’s?
And why didn’t I just write, Do we say the female’s name first, or the male’s? While I am not sexist in any conscious way I know about, and even consider myself a feminist of sorts (I believe in affirmative action for women, where needed), perhaps the spoken and written conventions (habits) I repeat reflect the sexism of another time. Do they perpetuate it?
I got to thinking about all of this after reading a recent science article, Men, Not Ladies, First: We’re Still Sexist in Writing.
First question: Why the use of “ladies” in the title and not the true equivalent of men, “women”? An intentional case in point?
As for the nutmeat of the research, in consisted of this:
Firstly, the team investigated the modern written context of the internet. Using 10 popular British boys and girls names and 10 popular American boys and girls names, the team searched the internet using each of the possible male-female name pairs as search terms, for both the male name first — i.e. ‘David and Sarah’, and then female name first — ‘Sarah and David’.
The results of this search found that for the British name pairs, the male-first name pairings accounted for 79 per cent of the mentions, and female-first pairs only 21 per cent. For the American names this was 70 per cent of the mentions were male-first and 30 per cent for female-first. [bold mine]
Second question: I wonder if this “sexist” name ordering was at least originally pragmatic. The more important person was put first. Hold on, hear me out. By more important I don’t mean ultimate/inherent value, I mean social importance. By addressing the person first who more likely made the decisions and/or owned the property, well, you were drawing attention to the priority of who it would be most advantageous to speak to (“deal with”).
I can certainly see how today this may be reversed. Imagine that you visit a female friend, Barbara, in her house. She has a child and a boyfriend, John. In this case, putting John’s name first just wouldn’t make sense. For in terms of social and pragmatic concerns, Barbara has priority.
And if the two are completely equal (in your eyes)? Maybe you go with a social convention. John and Barbara. Or maybe you say Barbara and John, sending a message: those days are gone.