boy and girl cutout decals

The Effect of Gendered Language

  • October 21, 2020
boy and girl cutout decals
The way we see gender can be influenced by language. Photo by Magda Ehlers on

In a 2014 study, researchers came to the conclusion that language directs the choices of its speakers by finding that grammatical gender of objects strongly predicted whether Spanish and Russian (gendered languages) speakers categorized objects as feminine or masculine. A gendered language is a language that clearly gives nearly all objects a gender. It is most often apparent in the ending of the word or in the article the word is attached to.  

Linguistic relativity, or the theory that states language guides thought, has been shown to work in multiple contexts. In this situation, the outcome appears to be inconsequential; very few would care whether a table is referred to in male or female terms. However, when language reinforces inequality, linguistic relativity becomes problematic. 

There is increasing evidence that gendered-language societies regularly show deeper gender disparity than neutral-language societies. For example, the Russian and Spanish speaking participants in the aforementioned study showed more sexism on the social attitude scale of the study than their English-speaking counterparts. 

Similarly, the Global Gender Gap Index, which “benchmarks national gender disparities on demographic, political, educational and health-based parameters,” indicated that countries where less than 70% of the population spoke a gendered language scored lower on both the overall index and the demographic subscales. It seems, in this context, that language not only represents and describes culture, but also forms cultural norms. 

Language also seems to play an especially significant role in influencing the attitudes of individuals towards gender and occupation. A landmark study reported that women were much less likely to apply for male-suffixed jobs. 

In a simulated recruiting experiment, when the work description used male rather than paired types, German-speaking business students rated uniform female candidates as less appropriate for high-power positions. 

Moreover, research shows that it can be hard to resolve language-induced stereotyping. Even though it is specifically mentioned that both genders are intended to include masculine generics (“he/him”), using male pronouns allows readers to picture men. 

For example, college students who were instructed to complete sentences about professionals using the gender-neutral indicated that they imagined fewer men than those using him/her who completed sentences, while both groups were specifically informed that men and women were referred to pronouns. 

Perhaps most critically, it seems that elements of linguistic bias begin early. By age six, children begin to remove occupations that contrast with their gender self-concept, according to a theory on career growth. Therefore, during this time, language around gender and professional potential may be highly influential. 

In experimental settings, when teachers described the profession using masculine rather than gender-neutral terminology, female school children considered women to be less successful in stereotypically male professions. 

More generally, various studies indicate that males are depicted more positively in children’s books. Child literature research reveals that not only do male storybook characters outnumber females, but male characters enjoy heroic roles, while female characters are reduced to dependence themes. 

In addition, it has been shown that reading stereotypically masculine stories immediately narrows the scope of play that girls accept as appropriate for their sex. Taken together, these findings add strength to the conclusion that the language of gender is not innocuous. For individuals and culture, language bias has real and observable effects.

%d bloggers like this: