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Le mot juste: To make women feel welcome at work, France tries … semantics

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The addition of an “e” at the end of a word may seem like a small thing to get excited about. But some women in France have waited years to be able to officially do so.

The recent decision by the Académie Française to add feminine titles for jobs is prompting discussion about equality – and about who controls the evolution of language. The centuries-old Académie is mostly made up of men and increasingly seen as less of a language rule-maker than the French public itself. Though the change had previously been adopted by much of the public, the seal of approval came from the Académie after years spent by advocates pushing for it.

At an early-March protest in Paris for International Women’s Day, junior high school student India decorated her protest sign with the feminine version of several job titles to raise awareness of the lack of gender parity in France.

“There aren’t enough women in certain job fields, and in the French language we haven’t been able to differentiate between a man and a woman,” she says. “I wanted to denounce that fact.”

Paris

In the face of a language bound by gender, where job titles are inherently masculine, Danielle Terrien, a Parisian author and poet, has been referring to herself in the feminine form for years.

“I always call myself an auteure or une poète. I always put the ‘e,’ even in my published works,” says Ms. Terrien. “It sounds just as nice written or orally.”

As in most modern Romance languages, every word in French is either masculine or feminine, from a plant to a box to an old shoe. Unlike English, which has the luxury of neutrality, gender can never be stripped away from French, and the default version of words or phrases are automatically masculine.

Until now, this has also been the case for job titles. But at the end of February, the Académie Française – a group of 36 academics referred to as “Immortals” – announced that the feminine form of professions would officially be allowed.

For many of France’s professeures, présidentes, and écrivaines (writers), the Académie’s announcement is an important step in the fight for gender equality. But it has also raised questions about who really determines the rules for the French language. 

While the feminization of job titles will now be made official – with new words allowed in textbooks and dictionaries – the change merely reinforces a phenomenon that has been taking place in French society for several decades. Instead of being the bearers of the French language, the 400-year-old Académie Française is increasingly at the whim of the people – who ultimately control how words are used.

“The Académie Française has approved something that has existed for quite some time,” says Mireille Calle-Gruber, the director of the Center for Research on Women’s and Gender Studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. “Language is a living organism and it doesn’t wait for the Académie. Language reflects the evolution of its usage in society, and we shouldn’t be afraid of change.”

‘A certain aesthetic’ 

The Académie hinted in 2014 that the female form of certain job titles would be allowed, but in the end, the Immortals (only four of whom are women) failed to put the modification into writing – claiming they didn’t want to impose new terms on those who didn’t want them and that the feminine forms of some words were downright “barbaric.”

“The French language has a certain aesthetic that you can’t break or rush,” says Jean Pruvost, a professor emeritus of lexicology and French language history at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. “It’s the Académie’s role to not precipitate things, to let the people decide and then say, OK, now we’re accepting this change.”

But even if the Académie is supposed to follow society’s usage of language and not the other way around, many say the Immortals were particularly slow to arrive at this change – especially in light of recent gender equality awareness campaigns like the #MeToo movement.

At an early-March protest in Paris for International Women’s Day, junior high school student India decorated her protest sign with the feminine version of several job titles – docteure (doctor), auteure (author), and ingénieure (engineer) – to raise awareness of the lack of gender parity in France.

“There aren’t enough women in certain job fields, and in the French language we haven’t been able to differentiate between a man and a woman,” she says. “I wanted to denounce that fact.”

Fellow protester Anne-Marie Barin, who worked in a male-dominated technical field up until her retirement, says the Académie’s decision is a first step toward recognizing that men and women are equal in the workplace.

“At the time, I didn’t think much of the fact that my job title was masculinized,” says Ms. Barin, who was the only woman in an office of 35 men. “But now that I think of it, it would have had an effect on how I felt about my place there if my title was feminine.”

Lukewarm reception from some 

The Académie hasn’t been the only roadblock to the French language’s feminization. Some say altering certain words can cause confusion – if a male doctor is a médecin and a female one is a médecine, how will people not be confused by the fact that the word for medicine itself is also médecine?

And some women, especially those working in male-dominated fields, say feminizing terms will somehow denigrate their position. Some female university lecturers – or maîtres de conférence – have shuddered at the idea of using the feminized version of maîtresse de conference. After all, maîtresse is the same word to mean a female elementary school teacher as well as a “lover.”

Others are simply bothered by the way certain feminized words resonate. French writer Frédéric Beigbeder wrote in a 2005 article for the magazine Lire that the word écrivaine (writer) – as opposed to the masculine écrivain – was a “hideous term” that made him “break out in a rash.”

But ultimately, gender equality advocates have prevailed, and forthcoming editions of the French dictionary will soon reflect the evolutions that many say have been taking place in French society for some time. It will also put France on par with neighbors Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, who have since followed the lead of Quebec, which integrated feminized job titles into the French language in the 1970s. Perhaps most importantly, it sets a precedent – even if only figuratively – for how women should be treated in the workplace and the world. 

“This isn’t a magical fix, but it shows children from a young age that men and women can access the same jobs and that women can put a feminine title on their job,” says Marie Buscatto, a professor of sociology who studies gender in the workplace at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. “It’s telling women symbolically, you have a place.”



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