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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 9, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 32
Gender-neutral language decreases gender bias, new study says
Section One
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Gender-neutral language decreases gender bias, new study says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Using gender-neutral language helps decrease gender bias and increase support for non-male individuals, according to a study in the July Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and UCLA took off from the hypothesis that gendered language reinforces the implicit social bias in favor of men.

Participants in the study were instructed to use either masculine (he/him/his), feminine (she/her/her), or gender-neutral (they/them/their) pronouns to describe a hypothetical situation like a politician running for office.

Then, after the initial description, researchers prompted participants to share their views on women and LGBTQ individuals.

The results confirmed the researchers' original hypothesis. Those who used feminine and gender-neutral pronouns to describe the hypothetical scenarios were more likely to make statements supportive of women and LGBTQ people when quizzed afterwards.

On the other hand, participants who used masculine pronouns were less likely to do so.

'The results establish that individual use of gender-neutral pronouns reduces the mental salience of males,' write study authors Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez.

'This shift is associated with people expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as manifested in more positive attitudes toward women and LGBTQ individuals in public affairs.'

Word choice not only reflects our personal values, the researchers explained, but reinforces our personal and cultural prejudices. In fact, gendered language can be the equivalent of linguistic sexism. How we speak influences our perception and bias toward others and helps create and reinforce power dynamics in society.

For example, using words like 'guys' to address a group of people essentially erases anyone in the group who is not a man, while saying 'mankind' as a catch-all for 'humankind' or 'firemen' in place of 'firefighters' says that masculinity is the cultural norm.

'When pondering civic affairs, speakers using masculine pronouns will be more likely to deem it a male realm, viewing other groups as atypical,' the study notes. 'Speakers who use masculine pronouns will also be more likely to endorse traditional gender roles, as they align with a male-centered view.'

Gender disparities extend far beyond workplace dynamics or family roles, the researchers say. Naming a hurricane, for example, might seem value neutral, but independent studies show that hurricanes with feminine names are perceived as less serious than ones with male names, resulting in lower evacuation rates and higher death rates.

'Words matter,' Pérez explained. 'The specific words we use can nudge people toward making judgments and choices that, as a society, we may think are good for us as a whole, such as greater gender equality and inclusiveness of LGBTQ communities.'

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