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The Literary Glass Ceiling: Gender, Language, and France’s Conservative Dogmatism in the Workplace

“The rules that govern the distribution of genders in our language go back to late Latin and constitute internal constraints with which one must come to terms with,” published the French Academy in 2014. The French Academy – l’Académie française – is ultimately responsible for all matters relating to the French language. In the midst of debates about the feminization of profession titles, the French Academy justified the dogmatism of the French language, reasserting a long tradition of masculine dominance in both the French language and, by extension, the French workplace.

The government first addressed the issue of misogyny in the French language pertaining to job titles in 1986. Prime Minister Laurent Fabius addressed the issue of the “feminization of profession names, functions, ranks, or titles” shortly after the UN made International Women’s Day official in 1977. Although the U.N. only implemented this day to recognize women’s achievements in the late twentieth century, France has been even slower than the UN in terms of creating awareness of gender inequality. France’s absence in celebrating female accomplishments stems from strong social conservatism, portrayed as respect for tradition. The French culture of “conservatism” dates back to 1815, when French writer François-René de Chateaubriand coined the term in the politicized context of the Bourbon restoration that sought to counteract the new enlightened ideas of the French Revolution.

In parallel to increasing equality of gender representation in the working world, there has been a general trend to modify the nouns associated with professions since Fabius’ statement in 1986. Unlike in English, every noun in French follows a pronoun or an article, either feminine – the indefinite is “une” and the definite is “la” – or masculine – indefinite “un” and definite “le.” While English-speaking countries have homogenized their nouns by making them gender neutral to overcome linguistic gender inequality, nouns in France have been gendered for such a long time; feminizing pronouns that precede job titles is integral to achieving gender equality in the workplace.

Words to describe jobs traditionally associated with femininity have always been only feminine or had feminine counterparts integrated in people’s minds, such as “teacher” – “une institutrice” – and “nurse” – “une infirmière.” On the other hand, jobs classically associated with masculinity have masculine pronouns, like for “doctor” – “un docteur” – or “professor” – “un professeur.”

There have been some changes, but they remain superficial.

For example, a change has been made to add a feminine pronoun and an “e” to the noun, which supposedly improves cleavages between “jobs for men” and “jobs for women.” However, in French, the “e” at the end of words is silent. The addition of the silent “e” rather than a stronger semantic change is not attributed randomly, but to positions of business, finance, government, and others associated to masculinity. Indeed, rather than calling a women entrepreneur an “entrepreneuse,” in which “entrepreneur,” the masculine noun for entrepreneur in French, transforms not only in its written version but also in its oral version, the change has been from “entrepreneur” to “entrepreneure,” with a silent “e,” making virtually no difference in spoken French.

This change dependent on the silent “e”, or the “e muet” – translated as “mute e” – makes women as mute in their professional spheres as their social status suggests they would be. Isabelle Mauriac, director of a finance and economy communication agency, talks of a “hypocritical manipulation.” The linguistic deprivation of the words ending with a silent “e” translates itself in a deprivation of women in the working world. The glass ceiling is extended to a “literary glass ceiling,” which reinforces the former.

"The linguistic deprivation of the words ending with a silent “e” translates itself in a deprivation of women in the working world."

Another “change” in the semantics of job titles has been adding a feminine pronoun to a masculine noun. For example, a female professor is now “une professeur”; the pronoun is feminine, but the noun is not, given the lack of silent “e” at the end of the noun.

In addition, “Madame” – French for “Mrs” – has been added to masculine pronouns and nouns. For example, in women’s representation among elected representatives, “un ministre” – masculine French word for “Secretary of …” – will become “Madame le ministre” if the title is held by a woman.

In 2014, Sandrine Mazetier, the socialist vice-president of the National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament associated to the Senate), replied to male senator Julien Aubert “Monsieur la député.”Although Julien Aubert was technically in line with the rules established the French Academy, he had to pay financial sanctions for his repeated use of “Madame le député,” when Sandrine Mazetier had expressly asked him to feminize the pronoun and noun to “Madame la député.”

By conceding some change on linguistic issues pertaining to professional titles, conservatives – including the more liberal ones who advocate for change – have further complicated the prospect of real change concerning gender equality in the workplace. While these linguistic changes appear to be progressive, they actually make matters worse as to the on-going misogyny in the professional world. In a country where semantics have become so political as to define gender relations, changing language inequalities appear to be the indispensable step towards gender equality.   

Author Laeticia Strauch-Bonart, in her first book “Vous avez-dit conservateur ?” (Did you say conservative?),  rejects the vilification of conservatives in favor of progressives. She argues that conservatism in France, unlike the popular consensus, is a liberal idea that dates backs to the Enlightenment. It does not reject change, but rather advocates for a controlled form of progress that conserves traditions. However, it seems rather convenient to call upon ideas of the Enlightenment, expressed by men who were, certainly, very liberal for their time, and apply them to today’s social situation without updating them. Language is but one treasured element of French identity that has rejected any modernization, crystallizing traditional gender roles.

Regardless of which side of the partisan divide is more responsible, these amendments to the French language are not supposed to be settled depending on personal preferences. They are instead meant to follow the authority of the French Academy. Since its creation by the cardinal Richelieu in 1635, the members of the French Academy, called “immortals” to reflect their mission of carrying out the traditions of French language forever, have ruled over changes of semantics. Forty immortals can sit at the Academy. Currently, only 36 are in office, and among them are only five women. Along with conservatives – both right-wing and liberal – they have often summoned the aesthetic argument to oppose the feminization of nouns; they argue that many feminized versions of nouns ring in an ugly way. However, psychologist Bernard Cerquiglini showed in 1999 that these refusals are essentially psychological – “neology is dissonant when it is disturbing” – and have much to do with a more profound refusal of women’s social mobility in the professional world.

Liberals deny the efficacy of using language as a tool of social change. “It is absolutely intolerable that gender discrimination still exists,” says Alain Bentolila, a professor of linguistics at the University of Paris, “but choosing language as the field for this necessary combat … seems slightly ridiculous and totally ineffective.” Liberals distinguish their support for gender equalization in the working place and their refusal of changing the French language. By doing so, they dismiss the politicization of language.

If language is inherently gendered – like the French language – it cannot be neutral, despite good intentions. Concrete changes in the professional realm for gender equalization must be accompanied by semantic, de facto changes. Indeed, “language that makes women invisible is the mark of a society in which they play a secondary role,” said the High Council for Equality Between Women and Men in a statement in 2015. Language does not operate changes in the way women are viewed in the working world, and society at large, but underline or undermine these.
“The use of the feminine is a fundamental issue just like equal pay,” says Gaëlle Abily, member of the High Council for Equality between women and men. “Language is the mirror of our society. The preeminence of masculine is a choice dating back to the 17th century. It was then decided to be the most noble.” The High Council for Equality between women and men has attempted to institutionalize semantic changes, on a par with the competing institutionalization of the French language’s traditions by the French Academy. In November 2015, it published a Practical Guide for Public Communication Free of Sexual Stereotypes. However, because the French grant so much importance to the French Academy and the French language it controls, the ultimate authority over these issues may be no other than the French Academy.



About the Author

Madeleine Thompson '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.