Rethinking Language and Visual Representations

Language and visual representations are central to all knowledge-based activities, including those in science, health & medicine, and engineering. Word choice, charts, graphs, images, and icons have the power to shape scientific practice, questions asked, results obtained, and interpretations made. “Sharing a language means sharing a conceptual universe” within which assumptions, judgments, and interpretations of data can be said to “make sense” (Keller, 1992). Rethinking language also involves Rethinking Concepts and Theories.

Rethinking language and visual representations can:

  1. Remove assumptions that may limit or restrict innovation and knowledge in unconscious ways.
  2. Remove assumptions that unconsciously reinforce gender inequalities.


Consider the following examples:

  • Unintended hypothesis-creating metaphors.
    Analogies and metaphors function to construct as well as describe. They have both a hypothesis-creating and proof-making function. By analyzing language—by “waking up” metaphors—we can critically judge how the imagery may be lending structure to our research (Martin, 1992). For example, zoologists often refer to herds of animals (horses, antelope, elephant seals, etc.) as “harems.” The word “harem” embeds assumptions about social organization, in this case polygyny. In this example, researchers failed to "see" what lies outside the logic of the metaphor. Recent DNA studies of mustangs show, however, that a given stallion typically sires less than a third of the foals in a band. Researchers who questioned the notion of a “harem” found that female mustangs range from band to band, often mating with a stallion of their choice (Brown, 1995).
  • Inclusive language.
    Inclusive language may enhance recruitment and retention of women in traditionally masculine fields, such as engineering—and may similarly enhance recruitment of men in traditionally feminine fields, such as nursing or psychology.
    • In English, “she and he” should be used rather than the generic “he” when referring to a researcher, subject, or student whose sex is unknown. Often, recasting a sentence in the plural avoids the issue of sexist referents.
    • In English, new words have been devised and usage altered to be more inclusive. For example, “fireman” has been replaced with “fire fighter", and “animal husbandry” can be replaced with the more neutral “animal breeding,” "infantrymen" are now commonly called "soldiers". Some old terms such as "aviatrix" and "lady doctor" have completely disappeared.

Visual Representations

Visual representations in science, medicine and engineering may contain gender-inflected messages in 1) the content of a field or discipline, or 2) the practitioners of a field or discipline. Consider the following:

  • Visual Display of Data

    Visual displays of data may embed gender assumptions. As discussed in the case study on Public Transportation, the charts below represent trips made in Madrid in 2007. The first chart (left below) graphs transportation data as traditionally collected and reported. It privileges paid employment by presenting it as a single, large category. Caring work (shown in red) is divided into numerous small categories and hidden under other headings, such as escorting, shopping and leisure.

    The second chart (right) reconceptualizes public transportation trips by collecting care trips under one category. Visualizing care trips in one dedicated category emphasizes the importance of caring work and allows transportation engineers to design systems that work well for all segments of the population, improve urban efficiency, and guard against global warming (Sánchez de Madariaga, 2011).

trips by purpose


When rethinking language and visual representations, consider the following:

  • How might metaphors be gendered and create unintended hypotheses?
  • Do gendered metaphors reinforce stereotypes?
  • Are word choices or naming practices gendered?
  • How does nomenclature influence who becomes a scientist or engineer?
  • Are the language and images being used gender inclusive?
  • Are graphs, charts, or images used to visualize abstract concepts gendered in unintended ways?
  • Does a particular field of science or engineering promote a self-image that carries messages about the “gender appropriateness” of participation by women and men?
  • Are problem sets or training exercises chosen to illustrate basic scientific principles gendered in unintended ways?

Related Case Studies

Public Transportation
Video Games

Works Cited

  • Brown, N. (1995). The Wild Mares of Assateague. Research at Pennsylvania State University, 16, 15-19.
  • Christidou, V., & Kouvatas, A. (2011). Visual Self-Images of Scientists and Science in Greece. Public Understanding of Science, (Online in Advance of Print).
  • Keller, E. (1992). Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science. New York: Routledge.
  • Martin, E. (1992). The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon.
  • Ministerio de Fomento. (2007). Encuesta de Movilidad de las Personas Residentes en España (Movilia 2006/2007). Madrid: Ministerio de Fomento.
  • Sánchez de Madariaga, I. (2012). The Mobility of Care: A New Concept in Urban Transportation. In Sánchez de Madariaga, I., & Roberts, M. (Eds.) Fair Share Cities. The Impact of Gender Planning in Europe. London: Ashgate.