How Gendered Language Affects Perceptions

Fifty-fifty with gender symbolsThe state of Washington has been working for several years to change the language in its laws to gender-neutral terms. If legislation passes as expected, no longer will there be penmanship, freshmen, and watchmen. Instead, Washington will have handwriting, first-year students, and security guards.

Several other states have followed suit, with about half making moves toward gender-neutral language. Such language is often lampooned as politically correct and excessively burdensome, but research shows that language affects perceptions. Perceptions, in turn, affect behavior, and using gender-neutral language can be a meaningful move toward gender equality.

The Pervasiveness of Gendered Language
Gendered language is so common that it’s difficult for some people to even notice it. From job postings to laws, words such as policeman, councilman, mankind, and fireman abound. This omnipresence of gendered language may be part of the problem. When people stop noticing gendered language, it’s easier to think of male as the default. People who do a double-take when they see words such as policewoman or police officer may be doing so because there’s an incongruence between what their expectation of a police officer is—a male—and the possibility of a woman filling the role. The more frequently gendered language occurs, the more likely it is that people develop male as the prototype for a particular role.

This can affect a wide range of behaviors and lead to subtle biases. A company that posts a job seeking an ombudsman, for example, may envision a male in the role because of the use of gendered language. This can give women a slight disadvantage when they seek out the job because women applicants don’t completely match the hiring manager’s vision for a future employee. The person in charge of hiring may never even be aware of this subtle bias, but this doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Effects on Women
From the time they’re children, women experience an onslaught of gendered language, and this can subtly alter their perceptions of themselves. Even women report that their prototype of police officers and firefighters is male, and this may be due in part to gendered language.

Gender conditioning can affect the choices men and women make, and when women grow up learning that they’re not the ideal image of a particular role, their options are limited.

Male as Default
The use of terms such as mankind is particularly problematic because it treats men as the default. When “man” is used to refer to “all of us,” women are completely excluded, even if the term is intended to be gender-neutral. Thus, men are established as the norm against which everything is judged, and women are treated as deviant from this norm.

Real-life examples of this can be found in the long-time medical practice of using only male research subjects—a practice that has changed over the past few years.

Setting an Example
While gender-neutral language can seem frustrating and cumbersome at first, this is primarily because it’s new, not because there’s anything particularly onerous about its use. When states establish gender-neutral language, they help this language become part of the common lexicon and set an example demonstrating that gender-neutral language is just as easy to use as gendered language.

References:

  1. Carmon, I. (n.d.). The effects of gendered language in job ads. Jezebel. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/5803238/the-effects-of-gendered-language-in-job-ads
  2. Lacorte, R. (2013, February 3). State moves toward gender-neutral language. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020282616_genderneutralxml.html
  3. Leaper, C., & Bigler, R. S. (2004). Gendered Language and Sexist Thought. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 69(1), 128-142. doi: 10.1111/j.0037-976X.2004.00283.x

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  • Gabbi

    February 9th, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    Honestly as a female, and a pretty well educated one, I have NEVER taken any offense to anything just because it is the proper thing to do to use the pronoun he to refer to men and women in general. if I feel okay about myself, then how or why would this even bother me? I personally think that there are some things that certain people take a little too seriously and they are just wanting to pick a fight about something. I have taught my daughters that this is the proper thing to do, or that you you can use he or she interchangeably, but really this should not be that big of a deal.

  • Dylan

    February 10th, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    It’s not bias or gender onslaught that brought in these terms.They exist just because they’re simple to use and have become a convention.Nothing wrong in bringing in gender neutral terms either but the use should be decided by the user and any obligation to be politically correct is just trying to control your thought train.Better to pay more attention to how women are treated in these jobs than to change the term that describes the job.

  • stella

    February 11th, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    If this is something that is causing young women to think poorly of themselves, then by all means, change it.

    But then in addition you need to change all of the commercials and songs and racy materisl that alos objectifies women and causes them to feel like they are ugly and fat too.

    So then the question is: where does it end? I mean, all of this is great and headed in the right direction toward equality, but you can’t change everything until we change the minds of everyone.

  • Maelduin

    February 11th, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    Not a question of offence, though, surely, but a question of setting expectations. For instance, if you see a headline saying “Police officer shot”, you’ll probably visualise a male, because it’s usual for sub-editors to write the headline as “Female police officer shot” if this officer happens to be female. And the human unconscious works in subtle ways – if a group sets out to choose a “chairman”, the unconscious response to the “-man” in the title means they’re more likely to choose a male.
    In the 1960s there was a deliberate effort to stop saying things like “woman driver” and “woman doctor”, which were then the norm for roles where it was unexpected to find a woman. Whether it was the normalisation of the language or the normalisation of women in the role, “doctor” and “driver” don’t now make you instantly visualise a man.

  • Chasen

    February 11th, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    People are enough judgmental as it is, taking away gender-specificity from roles and designations will help. But changing the terminology is one thing, actually getting people to notice and use it and thereby changing perceptions is quite another. It would take at least a decade or two for this to take effect.

  • rene abner

    February 12th, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    It is hard for someone who has never experienced feeling insignificant because of the word “man” being used so much in our language, but think about it from the mind of a young girl. Don’t you think that this could make them question who they are and what they could be?

  • NAJMA

    October 29th, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    please give answer of this question.IS LANGUAGE GENDER
    OR NOT and the second is..WOMENS PRODUCE CHILDRENS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ROLES THEY ASSIGNED IN THE SOCIETY?PLZZZZ GIVE ME ANSWER TILL TODAY 10 P.M I AM WAITING…….

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