Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


The Markedness of Identity

This little exchange on Twitter brought to mind a story of when I worked in a Computer Science department.  Out of a staff of about 30 academics, there were two women, and women were in a minority in the student group too.  I guess that sensitised me to gender issues, that and the fact that they seemed to be invisible to many other colleagues.

We had a rather snazzy Lotus Notes Student Record System, written by one of the lecturers.  Of course it was later replaced by a far inferior and more expensive package that the university mandated.  Whilst I loved the way student personal data was integrated with achievement data, helping me when counselling students, there was one aspect that troubled me.

Student class lists were like this:

Brown, Tom

Chaudry, Rabia (Miss)

Downes, Frank

Rashid, Haroon

Smith, Reuben

Yes, you spotted it – gender was signified by title.  If you were a normal male person you just got your name but if you were of the female persuasion you were listed with your title.  This troubled me but when I raised it, I was regarded with incomprehension – what is that woman on about?

Sometime afterwards, I was fascinated to read in a Deborah Tannen book about markedness in the context of linguistics.  She said in a 1993 article

THE TERM “MARKED” IS a staple of linguistic theory. It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own. The unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that goes without saying — what you think of when you’re not thinking anything special.

She went on to point out that the unmarked form of most English words is male , and that when markers are used to denote women, they are not quite serious and often sexual, for example ‘lady’ used to be equivalent to ‘lord’ but seems different when referring to ‘cleaning lady ‘ or ‘little lady’.

Thinking about this in the context of identity, I wondered if markedness was relevant to how we view identity.

How is professional identity conceptualised in education?

[A critical] approach to professional identity formation is based on the assumption that professional identities are shaped by a range of forces and interests, rather than being neutral ad value free.

Trede, F., & McEwen, C. (2012). Developing a Critical Professional Identity. In Practice-based Education. Retrieved from

So, I am wondering about gendered aspects of identity.   Are women more likely to think about identity because it is marked for them? Maybe they aren’t ‘just blogging’.

Please enlighten me you clever people and identity scholars.

identitymarked formprofessional

francesbell • January 15, 2015

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  1. Blogs- identity balance and meta homes | Francesbell's Blog
  2. ambrouk January 15, 2015 - 11:09 pm Reply

    Grayson Perry has written about “default man”, being the middle class white western man, seen as the neutral identity. Like the way white people used to say “coloured” for any colour other than pinky beige ;-). So that agrees with Tannen’s point.
    I am very aware of my gender, my age and my socio-economic status. Is it wrong for me to admit that? I am also a mum, which I don’t hide in my professional life. Also I am short, rounded and blonde!
    Those aspects of my identity do effect the way I present myself professionally. I do consider how people perceive me. I notice those things about other people and I suspect most people notice it about me.
    By pretending that we don’t notice gender or race unless someone points it out, we buy into the myth of default identity.

    • francesbell January 15, 2015 - 11:32 pm Reply

      I don’t think it’s wrong of you to admit it Amber. I have always been conscious of gender in my own blogging and particularly in observing blogrolls and who receives responses on comment streams. What prompted this post was the thought that while I may be agonising over which bits of me to share and how, others may not even see identity as an issue in blogging. So I am wondering who is blind to identity or starts from the default position.

  3. Ronald January 16, 2015 - 8:46 am Reply

    I think women have to do more “thinking” than men because in many languages the default for more than one person is the male form.

    “Ok, guys, get your pencils out”, a teacher could say that to a class with boys and girls. The girls have to listen and think whether they are addressed too.

    “Ok guys, I want you to pee into the toilet and not make a mess of the facilities”. When a teacher would say this, girls would probably think that it’s now not meant for them but that the teacher is only addressing the boys who pee standing up instead of while sitting on the pot.

    • francesbell January 16, 2015 - 9:58 am Reply

      +1 to your comments about language Ronald.
      Your comment about peeing made me smile and remember one of my more idiosyncratic achievements as a mother of two young sons. I had this brilliant idea of creating a sticker (stuck on underside of toilet lid) that portayed a little space alien who was saying “When you pee, please hide me”. It worked – up to a point;)

  4. jennymackness January 16, 2015 - 10:37 am Reply

    These posts are interesting, Frances, as my experience has been different. I notice that Sheila MacNeill has tweeted that she’s not sure how conscious she is of gender. In a similar vein it has never been a big issue for me and I now remember that the module of my MA that I least enjoyed was the one on gender issues 🙂

    My experience has been different in that for many years I taught young children, an environment in which women were (possibly still are) in the majority. It was very rare in those days, for example, to have a man teaching the youngest children. Of course that can be seen as a gender issue in itself, but the point I’m making here is that there were so few men around that frankly, for the most part, it was really refreshing when we did have men on the staff. I have always enjoyed working with men and if I were asked to list people who have been most influential on my work, I am pretty certain that the list would include more men than women.

    I have never really thought about this in terms of gender – more in terms of who I enjoy talking to / working with – and for me this includes at least as many men as women. This doesn’t mean that I am not aware of all that has been going on in the ed tech world in relation to the treatment of women, or elsewhere in the world. It just hasn’t been my experience. My experience has been that I can get as much grief or pleasure from women as from men – that it’s more about who people are as people, rather than their gender. But as I said, my experience which has led me to think like this has been different.

  5. francesbell January 16, 2015 - 11:12 am Reply

    Thanks Jenny – these are really useful insights. I have never done a module on gender issues:) though I have done a lot of reading since working in tech and tech-related education.
    Don’t get me wrong Jenny. I do enjoy working with men and I agree that women can enact power from privilege as well as experience it (we all can – it’s our awareness and working to ameliorate it that counts for me). It’s just that my experience of working in male-dominated environments and reading about Internet cultures has led me to reflect (and I did more yesterday) on previous and current experiences. As you know, I have done a lot of reading and writing on the ‘women in tech’ issue over the last few months, and it has made me think more deeply and broadly about diversity and how it is resisted. I have not had the experience of blackness but I am aware of the importance of intersectionality.
    I have followed @deray and @akacharleswade on twitter since August and I know a lot more now about #blacklivesmatter – that’s a small thing but it’s been important to me.
    In 2004, Susan Herring who had done a lot of work on Gender and CMC suggested that as Internet access increased and the gender demographic in CMC equalised or even tipped over then it became ‘ordinary’ and gender differences were less relevant You have made me think that I should go off and check what she is doing now.
    In the light of women’s and black/brown people’s experiences online, I think we need to re-examine the ordinary and look at how tech might amplify human beings’ tendencies to resist diversity and equality.
    You are thoughtful and ethical enough to engage with ideas that are outside your lived experience. Unfortunately, the spiral of silence can operate to submerge them for people less ethical than you are.

  6. Sheila MacNeill (@sheilmcn) January 16, 2015 - 11:28 am Reply

    Hi Frances

    So following from my initial tweet last night which Jenny mentions, on reflection I think it is more that I try not to think about my gender when I blog. However having worked in a pretty male dominated field for a number of years I have been very conscious of being the only woman in a room many, many times. I have been judged by the colour of my hair, the way I dress, my accent, far more than I feel my male counterparts have been. I have been dismissed before I have even spoken because I am female. However I have made my voice heard. It took some time in certain situations and often I was supported by male colleagues. But they were not judged in the same was I was.

    In my blogging I’m not trying to be particularly controversial or SHOUT REALLY OBVIOUS THINGS which some of our male counterparts do. I blog more for myself whereas I think some people use their blogs far more strategically and to promote their professional identity/views and availability for speaking engagements.

    Thanks for making me think more about this Frances – particularly the day after an Oscar nomination list that celebrated white, middle class males and seemed to ignore all other gender and race.

  7. francesbell January 16, 2015 - 12:05 pm Reply

    Thanks for your lovely comment Sheila. Whatever your style of blogging is – keep doing it – I love your posts. I also like the way you aren’t afraid to share your shoes on Twitter – I only wish I could wear shoes like them:)
    Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s that I am no longer under the cosh of an institution (even if only in my head) but I am increasingly feeling the need to say some things that others might not wish to hear but do call me out when I SHOUT THEM TOO LOUDLY. I have always blogged for myself. My lost blog was called the Tree that fell in the Forest.
    Regarding the Oscars, let’s just remember that Mike Leigh has been nominated several times but never won anything. This year Mr Turners nominations are all in design categories. And the wonderful , independent film with a brilliant young cast, The Testament of Youth doesn’t even get a mention. Judging and interview panels reinvent themselves – that’s why change is slow.

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