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.