This month EPWS gives the floor to Dr. Jana Valdrová, a Czech gender linguist, specialist in German language.
What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
My interest in science began in 1995 when I read two Czech articles on sexism in German and English. To my contempt, both authors, Světla Čmejrková and Jana Hoffmannová, downplayed the problematic subject. In her article, Čmejrková uses mocking remarks about languages such as English and German, which she phrases as “poor by gender”. In the opinion of Čmejrková, the Czech language system, which possesses three grammatical gender specificities, guarantees equal linguistic treatment of men and women, therefore any recommendations on gender-fair language would be pointless. My skepticism of the problem is not in the grammar system but rather in using language as the starting point for my research. At the time I started, there was no professional literature in Czech on this subject; nobody understood the problem, and nobody believed that the issue had a kind of purpose or future. The only exception was the famous Czech linguist Milan Jelínek who positively reviewed my work as he declared “It’s good to have recommendations on gender-fair language ready when feminists come up with their demands.”
My inspiring models were foreign feminist linguists – Helga Kotthoff, Marlis Hellinger, Hadumod Bußmann and others. They gave me confidence and validations when the Czech professional linguists belittled my research reports. For these reasons and with these inspiring authors, I found the motivation I needed to become more passionate about the science of language.
What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
For over twenty years, I have researched language from the gender point of view. A number of issues (health care inequality, pension reform, abortion, domestic violence, and the rising popularity of populism, racism, Nazism, sexism, and LGBTQ discrimination and many others) have two basic components. The first component is acknowledging the problem itself; the second component is the presentation of the issue which includes how the facts are treated within the topic, the beneficiary of the topic, who is mandated to speak on the topic, and, conversely, the voices that are excluded from the topic. Language is in itself a patriarchal construct; it influences culture, society, politics. The topic of gendered and gendering language cannot be dismissed if any positive progress is to be made at any given place in the world.
What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
My greatest success as a researcher is the introduction of the concept of the problem with gendered and gendering language use. I am the first Czech linguist to publish a dissertation on the topic and demanded the gender-fair language use. My greatest personal satisfaction is watching the interest in this topic grow and the research more widespread. From my initial introduction over twenty years ago, there are now over nine hundred graduate and undergraduate students researching and writing on the topic of gender and language according to the student works database: www.theses.cz. Additionally, my monograph, Reprezentace ženství z perspektivy lingvistiky genderových a sexuálních identit (2018, ‘Representation of femininity from the perspective of gender and sexual identities’), has had a positive response. It was a pleasure to have recently led the training at the Ombudswoman’s Office in the use of gender-fair language. Overall, it is quite gratifying for me to have the opportunity to continue to research, learn, and inspire others on the topic.
In which country/countries have you been doing research?
It was a pleasure to conduct research, lectures, workshops, and/or lessons on gender linguistics at universities in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in addition to other cities and countries such as Luxembourg, Washington D.C. (U.S.A.), Khabarovsk (Russia), and Libreville (Gabon, Africa).
What is your agenda for the coming months?
As of now, my agenda includes researching the pragmatic effects of gender-fair language; and, in the autumn, I will participate in an international conference on gender issues at the University of Innsbruck. Furthermore, my next publication will focus on the methodology of gender-fair language use for the Ministry of Education. Additionally, my goal is to expand training courses for administration and high school lectures in effort to introduce and/or familiarize this topic among people both young and old.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
From my beginning in 1998 until even now, my dissertation on language and gender stands alone. The barriers I have met took much effort to overcome, but I had and will always have resolution and determination to promote this idea and conversation. The hostility I met in the 1990s continued over a span of two decades; and in 2010, a team of fourteen linguistic department chairmen within the Czech Republic signed a petition addressed to the Czech Ministry of Education in effort to reject, dismiss, and deny my efforts, or any efforts, to identify and incorporate the topic of gender-fair language in education. Even now, the topic of Gender Linguistics meets opposition from professional magazine editors and grant committees. Only one student was admitted into the Gender Linguistics Ph.D. program two years ago, but the continued development is essential for the promotion of gender research of language.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
Gender equality in my field can certainly be improved and must be improved. In the Czech Republic, the Department of Gender and Science is housed within the Sociological Institute of the Academy of Sciences. This department helps promote female scientists and increases awareness of gender equality in science. The pool of experts at Gender Expert Chamber is an excellent resource for anyone interested in gender issues. (When the Institute for Czech language discriminated me for my scientific focus on transgender names, the experts at the Gender Expert Chamber confirmed my professional competence.)
Better implementation of gender equality in science is not possible without supporting females as early as primary schools. Improving gender equality is crucial for female children to realize that the field of science is, in fact, a viable option for them. Finally, in the countries where I have worked, equality offices are established at each university, except in the Czech Republic. To progress in all areas of gender equality, I would suggest that similar supports are established in the Czech Republic.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
Through my work and experiences, I have found networking between female scientists of enormous strategic importance. For centuries, women could not participate in research and, therefore, could not network. In her book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (2017), Angela Saini states that contemporary science is still a male science in its priorities and, therefore, results in gender hierarchies. Fortunately, I experience efficient and effective networking through the Research Platform Gender Studies at the University of Innsbruck where female scientists can connect across disciplines. This networking benefits us all.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
Without hesitation, I would undoubtedly choose again my area of study if I had to start my life over. To me, contributing to a field that promotes equality and diversity has purpose and meaning. I would, however, start to look for inspiring models and find efficient networking much earlier in my career. This is also the advice I offer young people today.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
It is with pleasure I can give a message to young European women scientists. My message to them is perfectly expressed in a quote by Bohumil Trnka (1895–1984), a great Czech linguist, which states: “Knowledge rises only if many investigators work at it in mutual cooperation and control mediated by comprehensible language.” To you, my dear sisters, I wish you much success!