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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Miss-ing the point

Yesterday the BBC published an article about whether or not calling male teachers "Sir" and female teachers "Miss" was sexist.

The accuser was a university professor, specialising in linguistics, and I have to say, I rather thought she had a point. She said that "sir" denotes knights - to me at least, it conjures images of upper-class, high status men. "Miss" on the other hand, tends to refer to junior females. The difference in status is therefore sexist.

Yes, there are probably bigger things in the world to worry about, but I thought she had a fair point. The school I went to didn't use the "sir/miss" form of address; instead we addressed teachers by their name - Mr Pearson, Ms Smith, Miss Peters, Dr Tompkins and so on. My brother's school, however - a boys' school which was the brother school to mine, did indeed use the sir/miss labelling.

Interestingly - though perhaps not definitively - whilst my school had very strong feminist ideals, his school was rather sexist.

What I was surprised about was the comments on the BBC website, from people who seemed genuinely outraged that someone had dared bring this up as an issue. Various comments suggested that Professor Sara Mills had nothing better to do, that she should "get a life" and stop her "inane drivel". Many comments said - probably correctly - that there was no difference of respect in a pupil's mind between "sir" and "miss".

But that is not the point.

"Sir" is not an equivalent to "miss". I have never been in a restaurant where TheBloke (TM) is referred to as "sir" and I am "miss"; in this case I would be "madam".

The equivalent to "miss" is "master" (which actually has its own linguistic problems, conveying authority and ownership).

In a world where women are consistently paid less than men, where they struggle to hold top positions in companies, surely it's worth looking at the language which is shaping our children's perceptions of gender before they even get into the workplace?

And even if we decide that actually, no need to bother changing it, surely, surely it's not a waste of time for a professor of linguistics to consider the question.

Nope, sorry Professor Sara Mills. The people have spoken. Get back in the kitchen, and maybe consider popping out a child or two so you can be properly fulfilled.

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