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The Law Unto Himself: Gender-Coded Language In Legislature

Sep 21, 2022 - Legal, Industry Insights

It’s no secret that the legal profession has a reputation as a boys’ club, populated by the old guard. It’s been an issue dating back decades, with research exploring this, journals expressing concern over it, and articles touting ‘Three Ways You Can Improve Gender Equality in the Workplace’. And yet, it persists, despite numerous initiatives and schemes to encourage women in the industry. Or, as Dame Janet Gaymer, Senior Partner of Simmons & Simmons, put it in her recent piece with The Global Legal Post

“Often employers have felt they needed to do something, so they will launch a new initiative, but they’re like shooting stars—you see them but then they disappear, they’re not followed through.”


But what’s causing this lack of follow-through? 

These initiatives seem doomed to burn out, or worse, fail to ignite in the first place. So maybe there’s something implicit that causes this hesitation to follow through.

Within recruitment, we need to be aware of gender-coding when writing adverts - but I’ll admit, words slip through because of implicit bias. I’ve found that I’m more likely to use feminine-coded words in my first drafts; these are the words I’ve heard all my life so they feel familiar to me. So I take active steps to counteract this and stay aware of the limitations of my own perspective. But, as I’ve been learning more and more about the legal sector, I’ve been left wondering how gender-coded language could affect legislation.

This is why I  looked into various legislatures from 2022 - across a variety of sectors, affecting both corporate and private clients. I was hopeful (and a little naïve) that more modern legislation wouldn’t have a bias. After all, we live in modern times and supposedly we’re all equal thanks to the Equality Act (2010).

Except the Equality Act isn’t exactly equal, with a ratio of 23 masculine coded words to 3 feminine coded words. Not a great start. But that was written over a decade ago - things have changed, right? Sadly not, as a majority of other legislatures were also gender-coded towards masculine language. 

The worst offender found was the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Act 2022, which out of 113 gender-coded words, 94 were coded as masculine. But the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 was certainly a contender with 51 of 60 words coded as masculine. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 fared better, with 18 masculine coded words compared to 10 feminine coded words. 

The areas of law that seemed to favour feminine-coding were family - such as The Family Procedure (Amendment No. 2) Rules 2022, with 13 feminine to 6 masculine - and (to my surprise) IT and electronic communication, mostly thanks to repeated use of “sensitive” when describing data.

Interestingly, while laws relating to property, corporate or construction often had a masculine bias, laws that addressed safety in these same sectors were more likely to be feminine-coded. Taken alongside family law, it’s not hard to see why. Laws around family and safety can be taken as falling under the woman’s domain, playing into ideas of women being more supportive, empathetic, and nurturing than men - an idea that is, frankly, Victorian

Of all the legislation I checked, only one had equal levels of gender-coding. This was the Down Syndrome Act 2022, which had 8 coded words on each side.

However, I couldn’t locate any legislation from 2022 that had no gender-coded words at all. 

It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that 51% of female respondents to our DE&I survey said that they’d been personally affected by discrimination, compared to 38% of male respondents. They’re surrounded by and work within a system that is coded towards and favours masculine language. And when language and culture are so intimately intertwined, is it any wonder that these initiatives never seem to change workplace culture, when the working language sets these foundations in place?

And just for posterity, this post has 7 feminine-coded words and 7 masculine-coded words, so I guess we’re all trapped by language.


Alex Bull is the content writer for the legal division of Harvey John.

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