Ruth E. Walker
A restaurant’s Help Wanted ad caught my attention the other day. It wasn’t the requirement “Must be 18 years of age or older” that piqued my interest. Under Ontario’s labour laws employers can’t schedule anyone ages 14 to 17 during school hours unless they’ve been excused from school. So, it’s okay to require an age minimum of 18 for daytime work.
But the restaurant was looking something else in their applicants. The job was for a waitress. A waitress? I haven’t seen that in a very long time.
What do you imagine with that word? Not a male applicant. Not a binary or transgender person. Nope, you conjure up a female.
Maybe your mindsight has that woman in an apron, hair tied back in a bun or net, order pad and pencil poised to take your order. Maybe she’s wearing sensible shoes as she balances a loaded tray in a crowded diner somewhere. No matter what you imagine, when you read waitress, you think female.
In Ontario it’s illegal under the Human Rights Code to reference and/or require directly or indirectly anything that is listed under the code as discriminatory, and that includes “sex” unless it’s a bona fide exception. A specific driver’s license, for example, to be a cab driver or transport truck operator.
So how come this clearly defined by gender job title sits there, bold as brass in the newspaper? Because words don’t matter to everyone — but they should. And most especially to writers (and newspaper editors, too.)
The times have already been a-changin’
Years ago – and I do mean years ago: over 40 to be precise – I worked in Human Resources in the health care field. It was a time when you had nurses aides and orderlies. Nurses aides were female and orderlies were male. It was just hospital staff titles. Our world back then had waiters and waitresses. We had firemen and policemen and chairmen and postmen.
There’s a long history of separation by gender. Our elementary school still had the boys entrance and the girls entrance carved over the doors, where, before my time, students lined up by gender. My gym classes were all female. Girls took Home Ec. Boys took Industrial Arts.
No wonder language and, specifically words and especially job titles, were framed within gender. The wake-up call arrived while I was working in HR during the 1980s. It was a revolutionary time when women (and some men) demanded gender-neutral job titles. Women didn’t want to be constrained by their gender. They wanted to be persons first. And there were males who wanted careers in “traditionally female” jobs.
Oh the outcry and resistance was massive. But eventually, common sense prevailed. Union contracts had to be revised. Policies and procedures updated and, in some cases, deleted. Nurses aides and orderlies became nursing assistants and, eventually, personal support workers. Firemen, policemen and postmen became firefighters, police officers and postal workers. The chairman of the board awkwardly tried on “chairman/chairwoman” for a while but eventually morphed into the much better Chair. No gender necessary.
Language reflects society
As language and its uses changed, opportunities developed for women in “non-traditional” jobs. Now, when a woman drops envelopes in my mailbox, it’s not unusual or remarkable or noteworthy. It’s my mail being delivered. And when a tragic fire happened in my city some months ago, the firefighter quoted in the paper was a woman. We mourned the losses. We didn’t stop to question why a female was working as a firefighter. As it should be.
Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing into this transition. There are still pockets of “waitress” out there. But the fact that it stands out as I skimmed the classified (often the source of story inspiration, by the way) – it’s a sign that my brain has accepted “server”, a non-gender job title, as normal.
Language is dynamic. It is always changing just as members of society change. Successful writers pay attention to the way language changes because it is more than just a word used to describe something. Language — the words we use and how we use them — reflects changes in social values, in institutional structures and how something that was remarkable or strange becomes ordinary.
And paying attention to those changes (and those diehard stubborn holdouts who think it’s all just being “politically correct”) can lead writers to stories, characters and diverging plot lines they’d hadn’t considered before.
Well worth looking more carefully, don’t you think?