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"ONE IS A WOMAN, SO THAT'S ENCOURAGING TOO": The representation of social gender in "powered by Oxford" online lexicography.

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Since any language cannot but mirror its speech community’s ideology, lexicographers cannot but record how that ideology is reflected in language usage (Iamartino 2020, pp. 37-38). Particularly relevant in this sense are all those entries which belong to sensitive issues in a given society: political and social ideas, religion, ethnicity, sex, and gender (Iamartino 2020, p. 36). As regards the latter, as Pinnavaia remarks (2014, p. 219), while male gender does not seem to be an issue, female gender does. Indeed, since the beginnings of dictionary-making in early modern Europe and until quite recently, dictionaries have always been full of entries, words, definitions, examples, and comments that display the contemporary patronising and often derogatory attitude of the cultural and social male elite towards women (Iamartino 2010, p. 95). In this light, this paper investigates the representation of “social gender” (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a, p. 11) in the definitions and usage examples of a group of occupational terms in the Oxford Dictionary of English, whose free online version is hosted on the “powered by Oxford” dictionary portal Lexico.com and licensed for use to technology giants like Google, Apple and Microsoft (Ferrett, Dollinger 2020). The rationale behind the present study lies in two recent online controversies which, blaming Oxford University Press for linguistic sexism, eventually prompted the publisher to revise thousands of entries (Flood 2016, 2020; Giovanardi 2019a; Oman-Reagan 2016; Saner 2019). Accordingly, this research aims to promote a debate about the current relationship between Internet lexicography, gender, and society, while highlighting the role online platforms may play in potential ‘wars on words’ as a new form of dictionary criticism.
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Lingue e Linguaggi
Lingue Linguaggi 44 (2021), 275-295
ISSN 2239-0367, e-ISSN 2239-0359
DOI 10.1285/i22390359v44p275
http://siba-ese.unisalento.it, © 2020 Università del Salento
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
“ONE IS A WOMAN, SO THAT’S ENCOURAGING TOO”
The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
SILVIA PETTINI
UNIVERSITÀ DEGLI STUDI ROMA TRE
Abstract Since any language cannot but mirror its speech community’s ideology, lexicographers cannot
but record how that ideology is reflected in language usage (Iamartino 2020, pp. 37-38). Particularly relevant
in this sense are all those entries which belong to sensitive issues in a given society: political and social
ideas, religion, ethnicity, sex, and gender (Iamartino 2020, p. 36). As regards the latter, as Pinnavaia remarks
(2014, p. 219), while male gender does not seem to be an issue, female gender does. Indeed, since the
beginnings of dictionary-making in early modern Europe and until quite recently, dictionaries have always
been full of entries, words, definitions, examples, and comments that display the contemporary patronising
and often derogatory attitude of the cultural and social male elite towards women (Iamartino 2010, p. 95). In
this light, this paper investigates the representation of “social gender” (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a, p. 11) in
the definitions and usage examples of a group of occupational terms in the Oxford Dictionary of English,
whose free online version is hosted on the “powered by Oxford” dictionary portal Lexico.com and licensed
for use to technology giants like Google, Apple and Microsoft (Ferrett, Dollinger 2020). The rationale
behind the present study lies in two recent online controversies which, blaming Oxford University Press for
linguistic sexism, eventually prompted the publisher to revise thousands of entries (Flood 2016, 2020;
Giovanardi 2019a; Oman-Reagan 2016; Saner 2019). Accordingly, this research aims to promote a debate
about the current relationship between Internet lexicography, gender, and society, while highlighting the role
online platforms may play in potential ‘wars on words’ as a new form of dictionary criticism.
Keywords: gender; sexism; occupational terms; online lexicography; dictionary criticism.
1. Introduction
In June 2019, Oxford University Press (OUP hereafter) was the target of an online
controversy concerning women’s representation. The publisher came under strong public
criticism after the marketing manager Maria Beatrice Giovanardi launched a petition on
the platform Change.org1 to call on OUP to eliminate linguistic sexism from the entry for
WOMAN in the Oxford Dictionary of English, whose free online version is hosted on the
dictionary portal Lexico.com. The petition (Giovanardi 2019a) condemned the many
usage sentences which not only recorded but also reinforced outdated sexist themes, as
well as the many derogatory synonyms provided for WOMAN, including “bitch”
(Giovanardi 2019a). Although the campaigner later examined several online dictionaries
and observed similar results (Giovanardi 2019b), she decided to target OUP in her petition
not only because they are an unquestionably reputable source, and yet, in her view, the
most biased, but also because they have a remarkable market advantage. As Ferrett and
1 Change.org (online) is a website which offers users worldwide the ability to promote petitions to potential
signers, in order to advance causes, mobilize new supporters and finally work with decision makers to
drive solutions.
SILVIA PETTINI
276
Dollinger explain (2020), OUP retains partnerships with technology giants like Google,2
Yahoo and Bing, as regards search engines, and with dominant operating systems like
Microsoft and Apple, whose preinstalled dictionaries are actually “powered by Oxford”.
As mentioned above, “powered by Oxford” is also Lexico.com, OUP’s new domain3 for
their free online versions of the Oxford Dictionary of English and the Oxford Thesaurus of
English (Connor-Martin 2019). Therefore, this content, which is free and almost
ubiquitous, is so widespread that it cannot but influence the way women are talked about,
according to Giovanardi (2019a). Nearly 35,000 people, gathering around the hashtags
#IAmNotABitch and #SexistDictionary, have signed the petition so far, including
influential linguists, academics, and women’s rights activists.
In response, OUP published a blog post announcing an ongoing corpus-based
revision (Connor-Martin 2019; Kolirin 2019). As the head of lexical content strategy for
OUP Katherine Connor-Martin explains (Flood 2020, online), after “a very extensive
project” examining “thousands and thousands of examples”, OUP editors have reworked
around 500 entries which “unnecessarily perpetuate[d] sexist stereotypes” and new
editorial standards and practices have been established for the selection of examples.
The petition on Change.org, however, was not the first online attack against the
public reputation of OUP. A few years earlier, OUP had been at the centre of a Twitter
storm which called into question their gender representation. In January 2016, the
anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan publicly expressed his concerns after noticing that
RABID, defined by his MacBook’s dictionary as “Having or proceeding from an extreme or
fanatical support of or belief in something”, contained the primary example phrase “A
rabid feminist” (Flood 2016, online). By searching further into his dictionary, whose
content is “powered by Oxford”, Oman-Reagan (2016, online) also criticised other, in his
view, explicitly sexist usage examples for entries like SHRILL in “The rising shrill of
women’s voices”, PSYCHE, in “I will never really fathom the female psyche”,
PROMISCUOUS in “She’s a wild, promiscuous, good-time girl”, and NAGGING in “A nagging
wife”. More relevantly for the purposes of this paper, Oman-Reagan (2016, online)
observed gendered examples related to occupations: while the sentence given for
HOUSEWORK was “She still does all the housework”, RESEARCH was illustrated with “He
prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches” and the usage sentence
for DOCTOR, as PhD title, read as “He was made a Doctor of Divinity”. Online
conversations using the hashtag #OxfordSexism exploded on social networks, and media
outlets throughout the English-speaking world began to report the story. The issue went
viral and promoted an intense debate which, as Cameron (2016) remarks, is not just about
a few words, but rather about sexism in language and dictionary linguistic authority as
perceived by users. Indeed, they seem to expect dictionaries to adopt a prescriptive
approach to the treatment of sensitive language and ignore that most monolingual general-
purpose dictionaries are instead descriptive which means that, unlike prescriptive
dictionaries, they simply record the way language works as observed in actual examples of
the language. Descriptive dictionaries reflect language as used by actual speakers and
writers, definitions are based solely on usage, they do not dictate how words should be
used or set forth rules of (political) correctness. Therefore, if people in one society use
sexist language, a descriptive dictionary cannot but document that use, but clear
2 Google alone accounts for 92% of the search engine market share worldwide, as of January 2021
(Statcounter 2021, online).
3 This domain was previously known as Oxforddictionaries.com.
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
indications concerning the derogatory nature of sexist words should be given to users, so
that they can be fully aware of their meaning and, hopefully, contribute to make the use of
those words outdated by avoiding them.4
As Russell states (2018, p. 14, original emphasis), a dictionary is generally
regarded “as an immaculate arbiter of truth timeless, authorless, faultless, sexless,
certainly not sexist”. Yet, as discussed above, in the past years ‘sexist’ has been precisely
the accusation made against OUP by many online dictionary users who, thanks to the
lobbying power of social networks and online petition platforms, have eventually
contributed to dictionary revision (Flood 2020). This tension between online dictionary
makers and users, which result from users’ expectations about the role of dictionaries in
society and which testifies to the status of gender as a very sensitive topic and also the
increasing awareness regarding the language of gender in the present cultural moment, is
the rationale behind the present study, whose objective is to investigate gender
representation in the definitions and example sentences of a selected group of words
related to occupations. After all, as Telve (2011) observes, women’s emancipation
expresses itself especially in the workplace, and names of professions are clear linguistic
indicators of gender equality and non-discrimination in society. For this purpose, the
Oxford Dictionary of English online (ODE online hereafter), which is the default
dictionary on Lexico.com, has been selected as a case study to explore gendered
associations, if any, in this semantic field.5
Section 2 explores the nature of gender in English, with special attention to the
notion of “social gender” (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a, p. 11) and illustrates the language
of gender according to the ODE online. Section 3 briefly examines the relationship
between gender and lexicography by drawing on the studies which have investigated
dictionaries from a gender-critical perspective since the 1970s. Against this background,
based on the working methodology described in Section 4, the analysis of the definitions
and usage examples of forty-five occupational terms is presented in Section 5, in order to
show the dictionary’s representation of social gender and highlight, if any, gender-biased
associations between professions and either men or women. Lastly, in Section 6 the results
of the analysis are critically discussed and alternative gender-inclusive practices in the
dictionary’s selection of usage examples are put forward.
2. Gender and the English language
As Hazenberg (2021, p. 585) explains, “our social understanding of what we mean by
‘gender’ has changed considerably over the past few decades”, evolving from a
biologically determined category to a socially constructed schema. “Our linguistic
approach to the study of language, gender, and sexuality has shifted in parallel” and “a
systematic, grounded, and critical interrogation of the relationship between language and
gender” has emerged (Hazenberg 2021, p. 586).
4 In this regard, Gheno (2021) interestingly describes the recent gender-critical controversy surrounding the
online versions of the Treccani Dictionary and Thesaurus of the Italian language, which arose after Maria
Beatrice Giovanardi wrote an open letter to Treccani lexicographers to challenge the entry for ‘donna’
(woman).
5 Unless otherwise stated, all definitions and example sentences cited in this paper belong to the online
version of the Oxford Dictionary of English (2021, online), hosted on the “powered by Oxford” dictionary
portal Lexico.com and referred to as the ODE online or simply the dictionary.
SILVIA PETTINI
278
According to the ODE online (2021), GENDER means “either of the two sexes (male
and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences
rather than biological ones”.6 The dictionary further explains that “the term is also used
more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of
male and female” and which identify as non-binary (ODE online 2021). Nevertheless,
although the notion of gender presently goes far beyond the binary opposition between
male and female, in this paper, by drawing from Cameron (2006, p. 724), gender is used
“primarily to refer to the social condition of being a man or a woman”, specifically in
terms of their representation in the dictionary’s definitions and illustrative sentences.
Before examining the relationship between gender and lexicography, however, it is useful
to briefly outline the nature of gender in English and the dictionary’s approach to the
language of gender.
From a linguistic perspective, as Hellinger (2001, p. 107) argues, “gender in
English is primarily a semantic category, with important social implications”. As a natural
gender language,7 personal nouns in English tend to be gender-neutral and referential
gender is expressed pronominally. Indeed, “the majority of English personal nouns […]
are unspecified for gender, and can be used to refer to both female and male referents”,
e.g. person, engineer, babysitter, and “can be pronominalised by either she or he or in
neutral, non-specific contexts by singular they8 (Hellinger 2001, p. 107, original
emphasis). Conversely, very few personal nouns in English present lexical gender, based
on their semantic specification, e.g. mother/father, aunt/uncle, queen/king, etc., and are
pronominalised by either she or he, depending on their referential gender (Hellinger 2001,
p. 107).
“However, though lacking lexical gender, the semantics of a large number of
English personal nouns shows a clear gender-bias” (Hellinger 2001, p. 108). This is amply
illustrated in the semantic field of occupational terms, which are inextricably linked to the
notion of “social gender” (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a, p. 10). This category refers to the
“stereotypical assumptions about what are appropriate social roles for women and men,
including expectations about who will be a typical member of” a professional class
(Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a, p. 11).
Many higher-status occupational terms such as lawyer, surgeon, or scientist will frequently be
pronominalised by the male-specific pronoun he in contexts where referential gender is either
6 The distinction between gender and sex has been extensively discussed in modern feminist theory, whose
review is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it seems important to highlight that, as opposed to
biological sex, gender refers to a socially constructed category which is deeply rooted in culture and, thus,
may vary in different societies and historical periods. The cultural traits and behaviours deemed
appropriate for men, women, and other non-binary gender identities or, put it differently, what is
considered to be typical or characteristic of a gender, may change across places and times. All these
aspects of the worldview of a speech community are recorded by dictionaries which, as a mirror of society
(Iamartino 2020), testify to the sociocultural beliefs and practices associated to gender(s) in different
languages and cultures.
7 McConnell-Ginet (2013, p. 3) criticises the concept of ‘natural gender’ and defines it a myth when
classifying English, to finally suggest the ‘notional gender’ label as an alternative.
8 In this regard, it is worth mentioning that ‘they’ was Merriam Webster’s 2019 word of the year,
representing a pronoun used to refer to one person whose gender identity is non-binary (Merriam Webster,
online). This new sense was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary in September 2019, in
response to a 313% increase in lookups over the previous year. As usually happens, lookups are driven by
events in the news, and the shifting use of ‘they’ was the subject of increasing study and commentary in
recent years (Merriam Webster, online).
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
not known or irrelevant. On the other hand, low-status occupational titles such as secretary,
nurse, or schoolteacher will often be followed by anaphoric she. (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a,
pp. 10-11, original emphasis).
Hellinger (2001, p. 108, original emphasis) further explains that the so-called “generic
he”, based on the principle ‘male is norm’ and, thus, female is exception,9 is also used in
neutral contexts for “general human nouns such as pedestrian, patient or driver, as well as
for indefinite pronouns (somebody, anyone, no one, etc.)”.10
Due to social gender, that is because of these gendered associations concerning
occupational terms, overt formal markings are thus required to deviate from such
stereotypes, for example, by adding gender-specific adjectives to neutral nouns, as in
‘female surgeon’ and ‘male nurse’. In this sense, for the purposes of “gender-fair
language”11 (Sczesny et al. 2016), the word-formation processes of derivation and
compounding have played a major role in creating female-gendered forms in the area of
occupational terms, e.g. waiter/waitress, policeman/policewoman, etc. However, as
regards English, it must be underlined that the few and hardly productive derivational
patterns have often created feminine forms which are not semantically symmetric to their
masculine counterparts, implying a “semantic derogation” (Schulz 1975), e.g.
governor/governess and major/majorette. As regards this point, it is noteworthy that the
ODE entry for the derivational suffix -ESS, defined as “forming nouns denoting female
gender”, offers users a usage note which explains that:
Despite the apparent equivalence between the male and female pairs of forms, they are rarely
equivalent in terms of actual use and connotation in modern English (consider the differences
in meaning and use between manager and manageress or poet and poetess). In the late 20th
century, as the role of women in society changed, some of these feminine forms became
problematic and were seen as old-fashioned, sexist, and patronising (e.g. poetess, authoress,
editress). The ‘male’ form is increasingly being used as the ‘neutral’ form, where the gender of
the person concerned is simply unspecified. (Oxford Dictionary of English 2021, online)
9 As highlighted by Hellinger and Bußmann (2001a, p. 12), “female linguistic visibility is often a marked
and loaded concept, and we find considerable variation concerning the status and productivity of
feminine/female word-formation processes across languages”. In this respect, the four volumes they edited
offer a comprehensive overview of gender across a variety of languages (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001b,
2002, 2003; Hellinger, Motschenbacher 2015).
10 In their diachronic analysis of changes in English syntax, Mair and Leech (2020, p. 265) briefly mention
the development of the singular ‘they’ as an alternative to the so-called ‘generic he’ for both male and
female reference. Based on data taken from corpora, they explain that, while the latter was well established
in the 1960s, thanks to the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the use of ‘generic he’ declined
fast in the 1990s, as opposed to a rise in frequency of both singular they and coordinated pronouns (he or
she, etc.). In contrast, Sendén et al. (2014) performed a large-scale content analysis of 800,000 Reuters
news messages which were published in English between 1996 and 1997 and show that the masculine
pronoun was not only more frequent but also appeared in more positive contexts. Worthy of mention is
also the study on personal pronouns by Twenge et al. (2012) which examined about 1,2 million US books
published between 1900 and 2008 and documented that the either high or low frequency of gendered
pronouns was directly proportional to the either low or high status of women and men in terms of
educational attainment, labour force participation, etc.
11 This concept is borrowed here from psycholinguistics as a working definition to mean a tool aimed at the
symmetric representation of women and men through language, and particularly the use of feminine forms
to make female referents visible. The objective of gender-fair language is to reduce gender stereotyping
and discrimination and to influence people’s gendered perception of reality.
SILVIA PETTINI
280
Similarly, the dictionary entry for the suffix -ETTE, which is also used to form nouns
denoting female gender, provides a usage note clarifying that “in the modern context,
where the tendency is to use words which are neutral in gender, the suffix -ette is not very
productive and new words formed using it tend to be restricted to the deliberately flippant
or humorous” context, e.g. ladette and punkette.
The prescriptive approach of the ODE online editors, exemplified in the usage
notes mentioned above, is further illustrated in the section named “English Grammar” on
Lexico.com, which contains an article titled “The language of gender” and labelled as
“Top Writing Tips”. The article directly addresses the reader and opens with a
recommendation which motivates the following guidelines on gender-fair language.
It’s very important to make sure that you don’t offend people by inadvertently using language
that might be considered sexist. In recent decades, some previously established words and
expressions have come to be seen as discriminating against women - either because they are
based on male terminology (e.g. businessman, postman) or because they appear to give
women a status that is less important than the male equivalent (e.g. actor/actress;
steward/stewardess). Here are some general guidelines to be aware of when you are thinking
about which word to use. (Lexico.com 2021, online, original emphasis)
Recommendations include: the use of a gender-neutral form, e.g. headteacher, instead of a
gender-specific one like headmaster/headmistress, unless gender is relevant to the context;
the use of terms which were previously applied exclusively to men but are now used to
refer to both men and women, due to the negative associations the female form has
developed, e.g. actor, author, and poet should be preferred to actress, authoress and
poetess; the use of more inclusive forms like humankind or humanity, instead of mankind.
The article further clarifies that “nowadays, it’s often very important to use
language which implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women, making no
distinction between the two genders. This can be tricky when it comes to pronouns”, since
in English, “a person’s gender is explicit in the third person singular pronouns” and “there
are no personal pronouns that can refer to someone (as opposed to something) without
identifying whether that person is male or female” (Lexico.com 2021, online). While “in
the past, people unquestioningly used” masculine pronouns, “this approach is now seen as
outdated and sexist” and gender-neutral solutions must be adopted: coordinated pronouns
(he or she, his or her), plural forms instead of singular ones, and singular they and related
adjectives and pronouns (Lexico.com 2021, online). As regards the latter, although “some
people object to this use on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical, […] the use of plural
pronouns to refer back to a singular subject […] represents a revival of a practice dating
from the 16th century” and now it is increasingly common in both writing and speech
(Lexico.com 2021, online). Moreover, the article presents users with guidelines
concerning “specific words or types of word which can cause offence because they are felt
to be sexist” (Lexico.com 2021, online). These words include nouns ending in -ess, -ette,
‘girl’ as both single word and in compounds, ‘man’ meaning all human beings, and the
suffix -man when referring to professions and roles (Lexico.com 2021, online).
Gender-related usage notes are found throughout the ODE online, yet rather
irregularly and sporadically, placed at the bottom of some relevant entries. For example,
the usage information provided for ACTRESS suggests the user to “see actor”, where ‘actor’
is a cross-reference to that entry. Indeed, the usage note for ACTOR explains that, although
female performers have been called either actors or actresses since the 17th century, and
although “there is still an awards category at the Oscars called Best Actress”, today people
tend to use the gender-neutral term ‘actor’ for both sexes (Lexico.com 2021, online).
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
3. Gender and lexicography
As Iamartino remarks (2020, pp. 37-38), “just as (or insofar as) every language reflects its
speakers’ worldview”, that is “its speech community’s ideology its values and dominant
attitudes, its stereotypes and taboos”, lexicographers working on that language cannot but
record that ideology as reflected in language usage. Particularly relevant in this sense are
all those dictionary entries which belong to sensitive issues in a given culture and
historical period: political and social ideas, religious faith, ethnicity, age, sex, and gender
(Iamartino 2020, p. 36). As regards the latter, as Pinnavaia highlights (2014, p. 219),
“while male gender does not seem to be an issue, female gender does”.
As a matter of fact, since the beginnings of dictionary-making in early modern Europe and
until quite recently, dictionaries have always been full of entries, words, definitions, examples,
and comments that display the contemporary attitude at best patronising, at worst derogatory
of the cultural and social elite, of course a male one, towards women. (Iamartino 2010, p. 95)
In this view, as testified to by the ODE online (2021), SEXISM is a female-gendered
concept, whose meaning, “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against
women, on the basis of sex” (emphasis added), is consistently illustrated in “Sexism in
language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees women”. The cultural and
social attitude towards women, as reflected in language use and recorded by
lexicographers, has been indeed the main focus of scholars investigating the relationship
between gender issues and lexicography so far.
As Russell recapitulates (2018, pp. 30-31), academic attention from a gender-
critical perspective has been paid to dictionaries since the 1970s, when the women’s rights
movement prompted researchers to evidence lexicographical bias in the representation of
men, women, and gender roles, which not only recorded but also endorsed or reinforced
sex-role stereotypes prevalent in the English language in definitions and examples under
neutral headwords. The works by Gershuny (1974, 1975, 1977, 1980) and Graham (1975)
pioneered this research line and demonstrated a quantitative and qualitative bias in
women’s depiction: dictionary definitions and illustrative quotations featuring female
persons were infrequent and almost always negative, as opposed to an overabundance of
masculine nouns and pronouns exhibiting “the culturally desirable traits of assertiveness,
competence, dominance, and strength” (Gershuny 1975, pp. 938-939). These findings
were largely confirmed by the works published in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, which
highlighted androcentric, sexist and discriminatory content in the gender stereotypes of
many dictionary definitions and examples (Braun, Kitzinger 2001; Brewer 2009a, 2009b;
Fournier, Russell 1992; Hidalgo-Tenorio 2000; Prechter 1999; Whitcut 1984).
Some studies also showed that dictionaries tended to underrepresent terminology
with strong associations to femininity or feminism (Connor-Martin 2005; Mugglestone
2013; Steinmetz 1995) or to omit women speakers and writers from dictionary corpora
(Baigent et al. 2005; Brewer 2009b, 2012a, 2012b; Cameron 1992, 2015).
In the age of social media technology, however, dictionary criticism goes beyond
scholarly circles. Online platforms allow dictionary users to publicly express their
concerns and directly interact with dictionary makers which, like other commercial
enterprises, tend to be responsive to users’ needs for the sake of their reputation,12 yet
12 For an overview on the use of social networks by dictionary publishers, see Biesaga (2015, 2016).
SILVIA PETTINI
282
within the confines of their descriptive evidence-based approach. In this sense, OUP is a
case in point.
4. Methodology
As discussed in the Introduction, the analysis presented in the following sections
investigates the representation of ‘social gender’ in the definitions and example sentences
of some occupational terms in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary of English
(2021) and, consequently, in the “powered by Oxford” free and pervasive online
dictionary content. For this purpose, the following working methodology has been
developed to identify and examine the entries under consideration.
In order to avoid bias in the selection of entries, instead of replicating similar
studies (Norri 2019), relevant statistical data have been used to identify and interpret the
headwords under scrutiny as representative of the British occupational breakdown by
gender developed by Careersmart13 and based on Working Futures 2020.14 Drawing on
these projections, Careersmart (2021b) provides a list of 320 professional areas, such as
“carpenters and joiners” and “nursery nurses and assistants”, each associated with, and
ordered accordingly, the number of their male and female workforce, expressed in both
units and percentages. Male-dominated occupations are displayed at the top of the list,
while female-dominated ones come up at the bottom, so that data can be accessed from
both perspectives depending on the reader’s interest. From top to bottom, therefore, male
workforce is decreasing while female workforce is increasing, and vice versa moving
upwards from the bottom of the list. Moreover, each professional category is linked to a
data sheet-like webpage presenting some features of the relevant occupational areas,
including definition, average salary, average weekly hours, tasks, qualifications, regional
employment data and, more importantly, a section which displays alternative and related
job titles. In this respect, while some categories faithfully correspond to occupational
terms and, especially, to dictionary entries, e.g. ‘carpenter’ and ‘nursery nurse’, other
categories are broader and named after the more general professional field, e.g. “welding
trades”. In the latter case, the entry or entries identified to be representative of that
category have been taken from the list of related terms, e.g. ‘welder’ for “welding trades”.
In case of partial overlapping between categories, e.g. “legal secretaries” and “medical
secretaries”, given the difficulty in finding exact dictionary entries, the noun, e.g.
‘secretary’, has been interpreted as representative of both categories. This working
methodology has been applied to identify three groups, including fifteen names of male-
dominated professions (Table 1), fifteen names of female-dominated professions (Table 2)
and fifteen names of professions in which the workforce is 50% male and 50% female
(Table 3). As concerns the latter group, a smaller number of occupational areas have been
included in the analysis, in order to examine only the ones which present a gendered
workforce ranging from 48% and 52%. In sum, based on the list compiled by Careersmart
13 As described on the website homepage (Careersmart 2021a, online), “Careersmart is an independent and
impartial careers website” which features “articles and podcasts on a range of subjects and the latest labour
market data from official ‘big data’ sources”.
14 As defined by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research (2021, online), “Working Futures is a
quantitative assessment of future employment prospects for UK” and “projects the future size and shape of
the labour market by considering employment prospects by industry, occupation, qualification level,
gender and employment status”.
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
(2021b) and on the selection procedure described above, this paper examines the gender
profile of the forty-five headwords illustrated in the tables below.
Dictionary entry
Occupation category
Female
workforce
1.
Mechanic
Vehicle technicians, mechanics, and
electricians
0.81%
2.
Electrician
3.
Carpenter
Carpenters and joiners
0.92%
4.
Joiner
5.
Welder
Welding trades
1.35%
6.
Plumber
Plumbers
1.9%
7.
Metalworker
Metal working production and maintenance
fitters
1.91%
8.
Fitter
9.
Machinist
Mobile machine drivers and operatives n.e.c.
2.07%
10.
Trucker
Large goods vehicle drivers
2.39%
11.
Bricklayer
Elementary construction occupations
2.89%
12.
Glazier
Glaziers, window fabricators and fitters
3.32%
13.
Builder
Construction and building trades n.e.c.
3.73%
14.
Driver
Taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs
4.29%
Train and tram drivers
4.31%
15.
Painter
Painters and decorators
4.73%
Table 1
Male-dominated occupations.
Dictionary entry
Occupation category
Female
workforce
Male
workforce
1.
Nursery nurse
Nursery nurses and assistants
97.72%
2.28%
2.
Secretary
Legal secretaries
96.66%
3.34%
Medical secretaries
95.83%
4.17%
3.
Personal assistant
Personal assistants and other secretaries
95.43%
4.57%
4.
Childminder
Childminders and related occupations
95.24%
4.76%
5.
Housekeeper
Housekeepers and related occupations
90.67%
9.33%
6.
Receptionist
Receptionists
90.48%
9.52%
7.
Dancer
Dancers and choreographers
90.05%
9.95%
8.
Choreographer
9.
Dispensing chemist
Pharmacy and other dispensing assistants
89.29%
10.71%
10.
Therapist
Therapy professionals n.e.c.
89.22%
10.78%
11.
Psychologist
Psychologists
87.05%
12.95%
12.
Travel agent
Travel agents
86.07%
13.93%
13.
Nursery teacher
Nursery education teaching professionals
85.98%
14.02%
14.
Beautician
Beauticians and related occupations
85.02%
14.98%
15.
Podiatrist
Podiatrists
84.7%
15.3%
Table 2
Female-dominated occupations.
SILVIA PETTINI
284
Dictionary entry
Occupation category
Male
workforce
Female
workforce
1.
Glassmaker
Glass and ceramics makers, decorators, and
finishers
↑50.63%
↓49.37%
2.
Potter
3.
Caterer
Catering and bar managers
↑50.55%
↓49.45%
4.
Steward
5.
Art director
Advertising accounts managers and creative
directors
↑50.38%
↓49.62%
6.
Lecturer
Further education teaching professionals
↓49.97%
↑50.03%
7.
Instructor
8.
Teacher
9.
Tutor
10.
Professor
11.
Trainer
Vocational and industrial trainers and
instructors
↓49.06%
↑50.94%
12.
Coach
13.
Moderator
Customer service managers and supervisors
↓48.45%
↑51.55%
14.
Shopkeeper
Shopkeepers and proprietors wholesale
and retail
↓48.27%
↑51.73%
15.
Proprietor
Table 3
Fifty-fifty occupations.
Another important aspect of the working methodology used for this research concerns the
analysis of the entries, aimed at outlining their gender profile and based on the multi-
layered structure the ODE online presents users with as to data display. Indeed, as Figure 1
illustrates, under the headword shown in bold and larger font, the entry for SECRETARY, for
example, displays the following information: (a) the clickable audio pronunciation and the
phonetic transcription, (b) the clickable “See synonyms for secretary” sentence which
directs the user to the Oxford Thesaurus of English, (c) the link to the translation into
Spanish, based on the English-Spanish Oxford dictionary,15 some grammatical
information, in this case the word class ‘noun’ and the plural form ‘secretaries’ in
brackets, and then the numbered list of senses and subsenses, each displayed on a new
line.16 More importantly, the dictionary offers a fixed primary example which appears
immediately below the definition and a clickable ‘more example sentences’ bar which
presents the user with about 20 extra examples taken from the Oxford English Corpus17
and illustrating the usage of SECRETARY for each sense.
15 Lexico.com is a dictionary portal which hosts the Oxford Dictionary of English, the Oxford Thesaurus of
English, and English-Spanish bilingual dictionaries.
16 As concerns senses, this study examines the first definition of each occupational term.
17 The Oxford English Corpus, launched in 2006, and still growing, is the first lexicographic corpus of
English sourced entirely from the Web (Atkins, Rundell 2008, p. 79).
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
Figure 1
SECRETARY in the ODE online.
“She was secretary to David Wilby MP” is the primary (gendered) example illustrating the
first definition of SECRETARY, meaning “A person employed by an individual or in an
office to assist with correspondence, make appointments, and carry out administrative
tasks”. As mentioned in the Introduction, because of OUP’s partnerships with leading
search engines and operating systems, each definition and each associated primary
example are spread across all the platforms “powered by Oxford”. For example, due to its
partnership with Google, search operators like define secretaryor secretary definition
or what does secretary meanin Google’s bar bring up and cite Oxford definition first,
because Google’s English dictionary is powered by Oxford (Oxford Languages, online), as
illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2
Google’s definition of SECRETARY.
Given the influence of the Internet on dictionary consulting, since most users tend to
‘google’ their language issues in this digital age (Béjoint 2016; Jackson 2017), OUP has
an overwhelming default advantage over other dictionary publishers (Ferrett, Dollinger
2020). This inevitably makes them more prone to public criticism as far as sensitive issues
are concerned, which, regarding gender in particular, is testified to by the online
controversies described in the Introduction. In this sense, the “powered by Oxford”
dictionary content users can learn on Lexico.com and also on a variety of online platforms,
SILVIA PETTINI
286
is a good case in point to investigate the relationship between gender, Internet
lexicography and society.
5. Social gender in “powered by Oxford” dictionary content
In line with the objectives of this research, based on the notion of “social gender” explored
in Section 2, the following paragraphs examine the representation of men and women, that
is the gender profile of forty-five occupational terms in the definitions and the example
sentences18 of the free online version of the ODE online.
5.1. Defining the gender of occupational terms
The three groups of occupational terms examined in this paper present a high level of
agreement as concerns definitions, where the gender-neutral ‘person’ appears in almost all
descriptions (78%). Exceptions to the use of ‘person’ are only ten out of 45 (22%) and
include other gender-neutral personal nouns serving as superordinate and/or synonymous
terms, as in ‘lorry driver’ for TRUCKER, ‘private teacher’ for TUTOR, ‘teacher’ for NURSERY
TEACHER, ‘university academic’ for PROFESSOR, ‘owner’ for SHOPKEEPER and PROPRIETOR
of either a shop or business respectively.
A remarkable level of agreement can be also observed in the phrasing of
definitions, always in terms of postmodification: a relative clause follows the gender-
neutral noun in most cases (64%), as in “A person who installs and maintains electrical
equipment” for ELECTRICIAN, or “A person whose job is to build walls, houses, and other
structures with bricks” for BRICKLAYER, where ‘job’ can be substituted with ‘trade’ or
‘profession’. Postmodification also comprises some adjectival clauses (18%) like
‘responsible for’, ‘trained to’, ‘employed to’, ‘qualified to’ or ‘skilled in’, as in “The
person responsible for overseeing the artistic aspects of a film, publication, or other media
production” for ART DIRECTOR, “A person employed to manage a household” for
HOUSEKEEPER, “A person trained to look after young children and babies in a nursery or
crèche” for NURSERY NURSE. These remarkable symmetries affect all definitions except
two cases, which deviate from the general phrasing made of a gender-neutral noun
postmodified by a clause. Indeed, the entries for GLASSMAKER and METALWORKER contain
a cross-reference, that is a link within the dictionary software which directs the user to the
entries GLASSMAKING and METALWORK respectively, in turn defined “The manufacture of
glass” and “The skill of making things from metal”.
5.2. Exemplifying the gender of occupational terms
As regards the analysis of example sentences, the dictionary’s representation of gender,
i.e. the presence of gender-marked nouns and pronouns, or other gender-related
information, exhibits greater variation.
18 The analysis of usage sentences includes both primary and extra examples. As discussed in Section 4, in
the ODE online, primary examples are fixed, they appear immediately below the definition and above the
clickable ‘more example sentences’ bar. Moreover, primary examples are spread across all “powered by
Oxford” platforms, i.e. Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Microsoft and Apple preinstalled dictionaries. Extra
examples are the about 20 illustrative sentences for each word sense revealed by the dictionary if the user
clicks on the ‘more example sentences’ bar.
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
The large majority of primary examples lack explicit gender reference: 84% of
instances are gender-neutral, as in phrases like “A car mechanic” for MECHANIC, “A
professional choreographer” for CHOREOGRAPHER, and “A senior lecturer in surgery at
Leeds University” for LECTURER. Neutrality is also often expressed by plural forms (16
examples out of 45, 36%), as in “Bricklayers and joiners are needed to convert derelict
properties” for BRICKLAYER or “It is increasingly common to engage professional caterers”
for CATERER. Despite this general tendency, however, seven entries (16%) present an
openly gendered referent in primary examples, of which four (9%) are male (CARPENTER,
WELDER, PLUMBER, and DANCER) and three (7%) are female (SECRETARY, DISPENSING
CHEMIST, and COACH), as in examples (1) - (7).
(1)
Tom Searles worked as a carpenter repairing the inside of the wooden mills […].
(2)
He worked as a welder in a steel factory.
(3)
When the plumber fitted the new central heating/water system he fitted a manual shower
mixer tap for us.
(4)
She thought he would become a ballet dancer.
(5)
She was secretary to David Wilby MP.
(6)
In 1917, aged 24, she qualified as a dispensing chemist, […].
(7)
His wife, Kelly, keeps busy as an English teacher and coach at Oakdale High School.
With respect to the list of occupational areas developed by Careersmart (2021b) in terms
of real male and female workforce, while ‘carpenter’, ‘welder’ and ‘plumber’ are male-
dominated professions, ‘dancer’ is a female-dominated job in reality, as are ‘secretary’ and
‘dispensing chemist’, but not ‘coach’, which is instead an evenly gendered-balanced
career. As regards ‘dancer’, it must be highlighted that, although the primary usage
example in (4) might seem ambiguous and lead the dictionary user to think that ‘he’
eventually did not become a ballet dancer and, thus, as it is in reality, that dancer is a
female-dominated profession, in extra examples dancers are actually more male than
female, as will be discussed below.
In fact, going back to the analysis, most gendered associations between the
occupational terms above and either men or women are confirmed by the study of the
extra examples provided in their entries. In other words, although most of the sentences
illustrating the usage of these job names are neutral, if referential gender is mentioned,
these professions are carried out by either men or women. Specifically, male are plumbers
(19%), dancers (19%), carpenters (35%), and welders (50%) as in examples (8) - (11).
(8)
[…] there should no longer be a shortage of traditional tradesmen such as plumbers and
electricians.
(9)
[…] He toured the halls as a professional dancer, excelling at the tango.
(10)
He worked for many years with wood, both as a carpenter and doing fine wood-working.
(11)
After watching a welder at work, he took to the craft himself and became a welder by
trade.
Conversely, female are coaches (20%) and secretaries (24%), as in examples (12) and
(13). The only exception is DISPENSING CHEMIST: this profession, labelled as British and
defined “A person qualified to make up, advise on, and dispense medicine”, presents a
total of eight illustrative sentences of which, as already mentioned, one is the female-
gendered primary example, as in (6), and one is a male-gendered extra example, as in (14),
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288
whereas neutral forms are in the majority (76%) and also include one instance of
coordinated pronouns, as in (15).
(12)
In later years she was a coach and teacher, […].
(13)
She was then working as a secretary to Tambimuttu […].
(14)
After he qualified the couple moved to Swindon and he worked as a dispensing chemist
in Old Town […].
(15)
A chemist may not provide repeat dispensing services unless he or she is a repeat
dispensing chemist.
As regards SECRETARY, it is relevant to mention that out of a total of 21 examples, in eight
instances (38%) this occupational term co-occurs with ‘his’ in “his secretary” and other
masculine subject nouns and pronouns, as in (16), which suggest the stereotypical image
of a male boss with a female secretary. This interpretation of gender roles also concerns
four instances (out of five) where the referent of secretaryis openly female, as in (17).
As to the only one example which refers to a female secretary without mentioning a male
head, this conveys a very negative picture of women’s work condition, as in (18).
(16)
Since it was written in shorthand, he had to ask his secretary to interpret it.
(17)
She started in a law firm as the boss’s secretary typing his letters and papers.
(18)
She is reportedly the lowest paid secretary in the department.
With respect to the remaining occupational terms, although they do not make any
reference to either men or women in the primary examples, the gender profile of these
headwords presents some gendered associations. In particular, it seems worth exploring in
more detail those entries which, to different degrees, make openly gendered references in
the three groups examined, as described in Section 4.
In male-dominated professions (Table 1), the majority of illustrative sentences lack
explicit reference to either men or women: gender-neutral referents abound in almost all
the entries, with percentages ranging from 100% (ELECTRICIAN, METALWORKER, GLAZIER,
BUILDER and DRIVER) to 48% (MECHANIC) and even 43% (JOINER). As to ‘mechanic’,
indeed, 48% of examples relate to men, as in (19), but one instance (4%) presents a female
referent, yet associated to very stereotypical conceptions of skills, as in (20). Indeed, this
usage example might be controversial due to its implicit sexism, since the dictionary user
might question the reasons why a female mechanic is represented by a woman who lacks
conventionally female skills like cooking. JOINER, which is labelled British and means “A
person who constructs the wooden components of a building, such as stairs, doors, and
door and window frames”, presents 57% of overtly male referents, as in (21). Moreover,
an interesting case is MACHINIST, whose examples are mostly neutral (75%) but, if
referential gender is marked, machinists are slightly more female (15%) than male (10%)
even though women in this profession are always the wives of men, as in (22). Concerning
the remaining occupational terms in this group, men represent 50% of welders, 29% of
painters, 20% of bricklayers, 19% of plumbers, etc., with no instances of female referents.
The only exception is found in CARPENTER where 35% of examples refer to men and 5%
to women (one instance), as in (23), which also represents a female joiner.
(19)
Since his father was a mechanic, he kept plenty of tools in the garage.
(20)
But while her skills in the kitchen could be improved, she recently revealed she is a
skilled car mechanic.
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
(21)
After leaving school, he did a seven-year stint as a joiner, […].
(22)
After his demob, Mr Harris worked as a plumber and his wife as a machinist.
(23)
[…] A far cry from her days as a carpenter and joiner.
In the second group, the one of female-dominated professions (Table 2), most usage
examples are gender-neutral, with percentages ranging from 100% (TRAVEL AGENT and
PODIATRIST) or 95% (CHILDMINDER and BEAUTICIAN) to 20% (NURSERY NURSE). It is
indeed ‘nursery nurse’ the entry which presents the highest number of gender-specific
referents, of which 75% are women and 5% are men, as in (24) and (25). If referential
gender is mentioned, female-only occupations are NURSERY TEACHER (25%),
RECEPTIONIST (15%), BEAUTICIAN (5%) and CHILDMINDER (5%), meaning that masculine
nouns or pronouns never occur in the examples provided for these entries, whereas mainly
female are the people whose job is HOUSEKEEPER (20% vs 5% male) and PSYCHOLOGIST
(10% vs 5% male). As concerns the remaining entries in this group, while PERSONAL
ASSISTANT and THERAPIST present even percentages for both genders, the referents for
DANCER are more male than female (19% vs 5%), which is in line with the male-gendered,
yet ambiguous, primary example illustrated in (4), and those for CHOREOGRAPHER are men
only (36%).
Apart from quantitative data, however, it is worth highlighting that some examples
of the entries associated to women record long-standing gender stereotypes, which regard
housekeeping and childcare in particular, as in (26) and (27), and, more significantly,
female health, casting more women than men as patients of therapists and psychologists,
as in (28) - (30). In this respect, it is useful to specify that for this research THERAPIST was
examined in the sense “A person skilled in a particular kind of therapy”. Concerning
female psyche and mental health, this association confirms Oman-Reagan’s criticism
(2016) against women’s representation in “powered by Oxford” dictionary content.
(24)
She was a beautiful, caring person who loved children and who loved her job as a
nursery nurse […].
(25)
He is doing a three-year course at York College which will qualify him to work as a
nursery nurse, […].
(26)
Similarly, women in domestic service as housekeepers or parlour maids had to make a
choice between work and marriage.
(27)
Critics from both the right and the left accuse middle-class women of neglecting their
children and exploiting the immigrant women they employ as nannies and housekeepers.
(28)
When I was little I too dreamed I would grow up to be a princess, but my Dad sent me to
a load of therapists.
(29)
She only started eating again when her therapist threatened to admit her to hospital and
have her force-fed.
(30)
Jungian psychologists have helped us to understand the bi-polar nature of women.
In the group of “fifty-fifty” professions (Table 3), that is those which present an evenly
gender-balanced workforce according to Careersmart (2021b), in line with the general
tendency towards neutrality observed in the analysis of the other two groups, the greater
part of examples do not contain gender-marked forms, ranging from 100% (ART DIRECTOR,
CATERER, MODERATOR) to 50% (STEWARD).
In terms of gender-specification, entries present different associations: POTTER,
INSTRUCTOR, PROFESSOR and GLASSMAKER do not contain any reference to women and are
all associated with the male gender, yet differing in degree. Men are 5% of potters, 14% of
instructors, 20% of professors and 40% of glassmakers. On the contrary, no reference to
SILVIA PETTINI
290
men is made in the examples illustrating the usage of TEACHER and COACH, which are
associated to the female gender in 10% and 20% of instances respectively. Moreover,
when specification affects both genders, masculine forms are more numerous than
feminine counterparts: TRAINER is more male (9%) than female (4%), as are SHOPKEEPER
(15% vs 5%) and PROPRIETOR (14% vs 10%). The largest differences concern two
occupational terms which belong to the same category (Table 3), namely LECTURER and
TUTOR, where male and female referents represent 38% and 5% as to ‘lecturer’, and 35%
and 9% as to ‘tutor’. A female ‘lecturer’ is found in one single example out of 21, as in
(31), which mirrors the predominantly male-gendered profile of this entry.
Lastly, as regards COACH, it is interesting to mention one example related to the
representation of women and, particularly, of those in power, as in (32), since it relates to
the stereotypical image of women’s high-pitched and annoying voices, which was sharply
criticised by Oman-Reagan (2016) in his Twitter campaign.
(31)
One of the lecturers in the department is a woman, so that’s encouraging too.
(32)
Margaret Thatcher covered her status as a woman when she trained with a voice coach to
lower the timbre of her voice.
6. Conclusions
As Norri (2019, p. 866) contends, gender issues present an increasing challenge to
lexicographers. The definitions and illustrative sentences of many ‘neutral’ headwords
have been often criticised by scholars for showing gender bias and reinforcing stereotyped
images of men and women (Russell 2018, pp. 30-31).
In the age of social networks and online petition platforms, gender-related
dictionary criticism is no longer only voiced in scholarly circles, since users can publicly
express their concerns and target online dictionary makers, which, like other commercial
enterprises, tend to be responsive to users’ needs for the sake of their reputation, yet within
the confines of their descriptive evidence-based approach. In this sense, the revision of the
“powered by Oxford” dictionary content undertaken by OUP editors is exemplary, since it
embodies an initiative aimed to address these issues in lexicographical practice by
acknowledging the present-day emphasis on awareness and sensitivity towards gender
equality in society.
Indeed, as findings show, in the Oxford Dictionary of English online, as hosted on
Lexico.com and, therefore, in the “powered by Oxford” content, which is spread across a
variety of platforms (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Microsoft and Apple), a clear tendency
towards gender neutrality can be observed, which supports and testifies to the gender-fair
approach of OUP editors towards the use of language described in the dictionary’s usage
notes and writing tips, as illustrated in Section 2.
As regards definitions, out of 45 instances, no reference to either men or women is
made: the gender-neutral ‘person’ appears in almost all descriptions (78%), with only ten
exceptions (22%) which include other gender-neutral personal nouns.
As concerns primary examples, which deserve special attention due to OUP’s
partnerships with the technology giants mentioned above, out of 45 illustrative sentences,
the large majority (84%) lack explicit gender reference, of which 36% include plural
forms. Despite this general tendency, however, seven entries (16%) present an openly
gendered referent in primary examples, of which four (9%) are male and three (7%) are
female. The result is that most online users, those who ‘google’ their language issues and
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
do not consult extra examples on Lexico.com, are presented with gendered associations
casting carpenters, welders, plumbers and dancers as typically male, while secretaries,
dispensing chemists and coaches as typically female, and gender issues might arise in
terms of stereotypical representations.
The analysis of the extra examples, which stand at 735 usage sentences in total,
confirms a strong tendency towards the use of neutral forms (578, 79%), most of which
are plural (371, 50%). Therefore, plural forms prove to be very useful to be inclusive, as
the recommendations for gender-fair language on Lexico.com (2021, online) suggest. In
relation to gender specification, the study of the whole number of extra examples shows
the prevalence of men in the professions examined, referred to in 14% of instances as
opposed to 7% of female referents.
In more detail, neutral referents represent the large majority of usage sentences in
all the three groups: 79% in male-dominated professions, 77% in female-dominated
professions, and 79% in fifty-fiftyprofessions. When it comes to gender specification,
the first group of occupational terms confirms itself as mainly male-dominated, presenting
19% of masculine referents as opposed to only 2% of female counterparts. Similarly, the
second group manifests the predominantly female gender of the people who work in these
occupational fields, with women being referred to in 17% of instances as opposed to 6%
of male referents. As regards the third group, including evenly gender-balanced
professions according to Careersmart (2021b), gender representation in usage examples
clearly favours men over women, respectively referred to in 15% and 6% of instances.
Moreover, by focussing on those entries which do not present any examples with gender-
specific referents for one of the two genders, findings clearly show a difference still
favouring men over women: out of 45 entries, no reference to female workers is made in
20 instances, as opposed to 14 instances as concerns men, and out of those 20 entries, only
nine are totally neutral, meaning that a large number of entries commonly mention at least
one male referent in the examples taken from the Oxford English Corpus and selected by
the dictionary’s editors for their users.
Based on these findings, despite the great majority of neutral forms in both
definitions and illustrative sentences, the representation of women and men in the ODE
online indicates that “social gender” (Hellinger, Bußmann 2001a, p. 10), meant as more or
less stereotypical assumptions and expectations about what are appropriate social and
professional roles for women and men, exists in English culture, manifests itself in the
English language and cannot but be recorded by descriptive English dictionaries, which
mirror the society’s worldview concerning men’s and women’s position in the world of
work and, accordingly, more or less gendered-biased associations between occupational
areas and either male or female workers.
In conclusion, if, as Telve (2011) explains, names of professions are linguistic
indicators of gender equality and non-discrimination in a given society, even if plural
forms are a suitable inclusive solution in English, the selection of illustrative sentences
presenting, if any, both masculine and feminine forms to illustrate the usage of
occupational terms might contribute to symmetrically represent women and men through
language in the profession, to reduce gender stereotyping and discrimination, and to
influence people’s gendered perception of reality.
Bionote: Silvia Pettini holds a Doctor Europaeus PhD in Translation Studies (Roma Tre University, Italy,
2017), where she is currently adjunct lecturer in English Language and Translation Studies. Her main
research interests are Audiovisual Translation, Contrastive Linguistics, Game Localisation and Internet
SILVIA PETTINI
292
Lexicography, with special attention to cultural specificity and gender issues. She has presented her works at
many international conferences and she is an active member of AIA (Associazione Italiana di Anglistica)
and ESIST (European Association for Studies in Screen Translation). She has published papers in
international peer-reviewed journals such as Translation Spaces and The Journal of Internationalization and
Localization and book chapters in volumes such as Language for Specific Purposes: Research and
Translation across Cultures and Media (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), Linguistic and Cultural
Representation in Audiovisual Translation (Routledge, 2018), The Routledge Handbook of Translation,
Feminism and Gender (Routledge, 2020).
Author’s address: silvia.pettini@uniroma3.it
“One is a woman, so that’s encouraging too. The representation of social gender in “powered by Oxford”
online lexicography
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