The Men and Women of ...

Why do we so often refer to members of the military as our “men and women in uniform”? It’s not the “uniform” part that has me thinking about this. We do the same with many other institutions — the “men and women of TransExpress Airlines” or the “talented men and women of Central State University.” For that matter, why do we address a kindergarten class as “boys and girls”? I’m not looking to suggest that each utterance of such phrases reveals the latent gender biases of the speaker. I only want to ask why. In doing so, I’ve been led to consider the descriptive power of terms of sexual identification, beliefs that men and women are essentially different and yet inseparable types of beings, and how attempts to be inclusive can also reinforce the distinction among groups.

But maybe you think it’s ridiculous even to question this turn of phrase. It’s just a colorful way of saying “people,” right? To see how odd gendered phrasing is, in the abstract, try it out on other social groups: “our blacks and whites in uniform,” “the Latinos and non-Latinos of Widget World Industries.” No one talks that way. The phrasing is offensive for what we would think it reveals about the speaker — that he or she found the classification into social groups somehow relevant, so relevant as to be the fundamental way to sort the employees of an entire organization. And yet the audience understands that the distinction drawn is not at all relevant in the context used. The speaker, therefore, must be resorting to faulty stereotypes. Shame on him … or her.

But even where a classification is not offensive, it just seems bizarre when it’s not directly related to a functional categorization within the organization. “The black-haired, blondes, and brown-haired of Central High School” is a patently stupid way to refer to a student body, whereas “the pilots, flight attendants, maintenance, and other professionals of Pacific Airways” is intuitively sensible.

So why is a top-level gender classification of an organization seen as rhetorically acceptable and perhaps even the preferred way to refer to the organization’s members? There are a number of possibilities. First, perhaps this usage reflects the pervasive belief that men and women are essentially different in ways relevant to just about every aspect of life, including jobs both genders share. This is a first step toward arguing that the common rhetorical phrase, “men and women of,” is an invidious one. And there is certainly lots of evidence in our society that many, many people believe the distinction between men and women is almost always relevant. That’s not to say that relevance is thought automatically to imply the acceptability of unequal treatment. It’s a weaker thing to assert that a classification among, say, workers is relevant to appreciating the social dynamics and character of a workforce than to claim that a classification should be the basis of different treatment. But, often enough, people also believe that gender justifies different, but perhaps not what they would recognize as unequal, treatment.

As the father of a young girl and a young boy, I’ve lived under the social pressures to give boys and girls different childhood experiences. From colors (pink and blue), to varieties of play, to dress, children grow up with profoundly different kinds of reinforcement and opportunities depending on their genders. There’s a debate over how much of this is innate and how much kids’ tastes are shaped by marketing, expectation, and peer-group pressure. Other social animals exhibit sexual segregation or at least inhabit different roles within groups. I know almost nothing about research into the social expression of innate human sexual differences. But I would very surprised if evolution has not resulted in at least some different social proclivities among the sexes. After all, the struggle over the eons has been to attract one another.

Whatever payload natural selection has left in my own children, I see no reason to reinforce gendered distinctions that have no obvious relevance to modern society and which are hindrances to affording others opportunity and respect. So my spouse and I never forbade, but did not selectively encourage, princess play or truck play or superhero play or pink markers or blue markers. My son fell in love with Star Wars, true. And my daughter developed a particular kind of interest in animals that is more often associated with girls. She also has been more attracted to sparkly things and, more recently but to some extent for a long while, clothing, hair styles, and nail polish. (She also loves the Lord of the Rings, great white sharks, and videogames more associated with boys.) I have no way of saying how all their tastes have come about. This is a massive topic that to discuss would take a book-length treatment and knowledge I don’t have. You quickly learn as a parent, though, that while you can do your best to impart values and taste, your children will substantially be a product of the culture in which they live, just as you have been. That felt understanding leads to a critical appraisal of what that culture is telling them.

That’s why I’ve balked when a politician acknowledges a debt to our “brave men and women of the armed forces.” Why should my kids believe that one’s gender has anything to do with one’s place in the armed forces? The obvious rejoinder is that the phrase does not mean to imply any difference in status. Kind of like the judicial rationale for upholding the appearance of “in God we trust” on our money and “under God” in our pledge: The Supreme Court has told us that these are only secular acknowledgments of the role of (non-sectarian) civic religion in our history but have no religious expressive value. In other words, they’re ok for the government to say because they do not mean at all what they purport to say (and, ironically, what the zealous advocates of theocracy believe them to say). So too, the justification for “men and women of” might be that it means nothing, only another way of saying “people.”

Perhaps we can take a cue from the religious example, though, and give an even more charitable reading to the phrase. At one time, one could accurately say, without imparting to the word “man” a universal quality, “the men of the armed forces” or “the men of Central College.” Adding “and women,” far from having any discriminatory intent or effect, signaled the importance of the recent inclusion of women in formerly male-only institutions. When I was growing up, people started saying “our forefathers, and foremothers” in speeches, orally set off in commas, inducing a knowing chuckle at the then-common tendency to undervalue the contributions of women in the early days of the Republic. It was a reminder of the undesirable exclusivity of the word “forefathers.”

A CEO who praises the “men and women” of the company does not, under this view, communicate a different appraisal of their roles but respect for their equal contributions. There’s a problem with that, however. Why would the same CEO not open a speech by praising the “blacks and whites” of the company? Surely, African Americans have struggled to overcome systematic exclusion just as women have. And as surely, it’s still important to signal their equal status, the rejection of discrimination, and to welcome the arrival of policies of inclusion. But we don’t do that in this way. Why not?

Highlighting the social groups that compose a company is a double-edged sword. It can signal the presence and importance of those groups within the organization even as it reinforces the relevance of the distinction. Some conservatives have taken the irrelevance of racial and gender distinctions to mean that no policies should ever turn on them, even those policies meant to achieve greater inclusion in areas of life where women or minorities are underrepresented and have been excluded in the past. This is a mistake, in my view. But it’s a bit curious that the zeal accompanying the insistence on the irrelevance of the distinction, to the point of abject hostility to “identity politics” and the Colbert-like insistence that we just not see race at all, does not cause a moment’s hesitation at “the men and women of.” In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find empirically that the phrase is more often be used by CEOs who are otherwise allergic to group-based politics.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean this to be personally critical. I don’t think that saying “the men and women of” means the speaker holds essentialist and incorrect views about the capabilities of the sexes. It’s embedded in modern rhetoric, and I’m rambling along thinking about why that might be. So let’s consider another possibility that is yet more charitable to the phrase, one you might consider when trying hard to be fair to such speakers’ intentions. I’d call this aspect of the phrase “vivification.”

Why, after all, did we ever use the phrase “the men of”? When I hear the word “man,” I summon a picture more specific than that when I hear the word “person.” When you hear “men and women,” if you’re like me, you sometimes summon an image of a somewhat generic group but made more flesh and blood by the admittedly weak visual cue the gendered words carry. If I want you to think of the laboring and helpful human beings staffing my organization, perhaps saying “men and women” instead of “people” makes it more likely you will imagine a group of actual human beings than a faceless bureaucracy. Specifying gender is a gentle, subtle cue to physical features — secondary sexual characteristics, to be sure — that distinguish us from the cogs of a machine. We could as well say “the hard-working, tall and short people of Skyways Airlines,” but it would be such a novel way of injecting human characteristics that it would quite obviously not have the desired effect. And so, maybe “men and women of,” born of a purpose to be inclusive in a world of very recent exclusion, is now an available means in rhetoric of humanizing an institution. If this is its purpose, we should recognize that we’re piggybacking on cultural understandings of the stereotypical physical differences of the sexes.

Well, I don’t have any answers. I admit that I don’t particularly like the phrase “the men and women of.” My perception is that it tends to be delivered to achieve a solemnifying effect by politicians and corporate officers. At this point, I think its effect, if not its purpose, has shifted away from laudably signaling inclusion and toward reinforcing distinctions that should not exist. By now, inclusion should be a given. Just as obviously, its binary phrasing is problematic as transgender individuals achieve greater social acceptance.

I’ve found it funny how, in all the wars over gendered products and the sexual politics of the workplace, some uses of sexual differences go unremarked. It just seems like a pretty big deal to me when a leader of a large organization introduces it by asserting, right from the beginning, that it’s a union of sexes. Weird, huh?