It is easy to assume that our concepts of gender come from concrete portrayals in the media. We see pictures of buff men and dainty women, and we internalize these stereotypical characteristics of masculinity and femininity. But that is only part of the story. There is something far more pervasive in our everyday lives, that subconsciously reinforces our ideas about gender: language. Language, a key aspect of our socialization, is immensely powerful in shaping the way we think and view the world. More specifically, a language’s grammatical structure profoundly affects how someone views gender in their society. This phenomenon has important implications for gender equality — gendered grammar reinforces gender stereotypes and hierarchical socioeconomic structures. Recognizing language’s subtle but significant impact is the first step in the slow process of changing our daily lexicon. In changing the conversation of gendered language, we can also change the gendered language of the conversation.
Language informs how we interact and experience our surroundings – people have different concepts of special relations, time and temporal order, color and even certain emotions, based on their language. Vocabulary, grammar, and written structure all play a role in how language subconsciously affects a person’s outlook and how social interactions are structured. Grammatical gender is when the pronouns, adjectives, possessives, verb endings, etc. change because of a gender inherent to the noun. For example, in Spanish, the word for house, casa, is feminine, while the word for work, trabajo, is masculine. While all languages have some concept of gender, the importance of gender varies greatly depending upon each language’s unique grammatical gender structure.
There are three main categories of gendered grammatical structures: gendered languages, natural gender languages, and genderless languages. Gendered languages like Spanish, Russian, or German, are characterized by their nouns, which are always assigned a feminine or masculine (or sometimes neutral) gender. Natural gender languages, like English, distinguish gender through pronouns (such as he or she), but do not distinguish gender in the noun itself. Genderless languages like Finnish, Turkish or Chinese, completely lack grammatical gender distinction in the noun system. For example, in Finnish, for example, hän refers to both he and she, and therefore has no gender.
Gendered language constantly calls gender to attention, so it stands to reason that people with gendered languages are more likely to notice or even contrive gender differences. Studies support this hypothesis: When German and Spanish-speakers were asked to describe objects, their descriptions varied depending on the grammatical gender of that object in the given language. For example, when asked to describe a “key” in English (a natural gender language) — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.”
This can also be seen outside of the lab, through personification in art. The ways in which abstract entities, such as death, sin, victory, or time, are given human form is largely dependent on the painter’s native language. 85 percent of such personifications of either male or female coincided with the gender of the noun in that language. For example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman. It seems “even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.” In this way, language shapes and reinforces gender stereotypes and structures.
Yet, when we talk about reasons for gender inequality, grammar is rarely mentioned — this is remiss because gendered language can be conducive to sexist attitudes. In one study, suburban New York high school students were asked to read a passage in either English (a natural gender language) or a gendered language (either Spanish or French), and then complete a measure of sexism. It seems that the language made a difference in the amount of sexism they demonstrated – students who completed the study in English expressed less sexist attitudes than the students who completed the study in a gendered language. This reflects a study of the 2009 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report: looking at 134 countries, it appears that there is less gender equality in countries that speak gendered languages, while in countries with natural gendered languages, there is significantly more gender equality. This intuitively makes sense — something as pervasive and integral to our social interactions as language is bound to affect our perceptions.
The societal impact of gendered language is especially evident in economic participation. Stereotypes about traditional gender roles in certain jobs can be exacerbated by how the company writes the job description. Studies found that only 5 percent of female participants applied for a traditionally male job, which used male generics in its description, whereas 25 percent of women applied when it was described in a gender neutral way. This means that a woman would be more likely to apply to a position of a “police officer,” instead of a “policeman.” Children’s gender perceptions of professions are especially malleable: when presented with professions in male-dominated, gendered languages, they see stereotypical gendered occupations as unalterable. In contrast, when presented with word pairs – referring to people in the profession as both he and she – they said that those jobs are open to both genders: women can also be firefighters, and men, nurses. In other words, the gender stereotypes for certain jobs are exacerbated by the language used to refer to that job. Thus, language can influence people’s employment opportunities, which can have effects on the gender equality of a society.
Even with growing empirical evidence, the general awareness of gendered grammar is relatively low. Nevertheless, there have been movements for more gender neutral and inclusive languages, mostly from feminist activists. These activists say that gendered language can make women invisible because it is common in gendered languages to use masculine nouns to refer to both men and women, or people whose gender is unknown. For example, in Spanish, if there is a group consisting of twenty girls and one boy, the group is referred to as masculine. This can even be true if they are referring a woman in a predominantly male, high status profession, such as chirurgo (surgeon) or primo ministro (prime minister) in Italian. They say that, due to stereotypes and the lack of visibility, women and girls are at a disadvantage in personal and professional relationships.
Countries have adopted different strategies to actively reform their languages to be more gender inclusive. Some countries, such as Norway, have actively reformed their languages to be more gender inclusive. Norway opted to reflect a more genderless outlook, by adopting non-gender specific titles for men and women, like in English. For example, all official documents now refer to a politician as politikere. In contrast, Germany adopted a strategy of gender-specification to increase visibility, a male politician is a politiker, and a female politician is a politikerinnen. In the United States, there has been a push to include more options for non-binary genders, such as referring to people whose gender is not specified as “they.”
Changing language is a long and difficult process and it is not clear what consequences an adoption of more genderless grammar would have. Removing the distinction between man and woman in a language may also remove what visibility women do have. Studies suggest countries that speak natural gender languages may be even more apt to exhibit gender equality—especially in the form of women’s greater access to political empowerment—than in countries where gendered or genderless languages are spoken. That being said, languages do change to reflect accepted societal views, and as views on gender change, language may start to change with it, although it is not clear how. Based on available research, it currently seems that the best solution is to include the use of gender pairs in order to create more equal representation (i.e. refer to he and she, or they, instead of just he). Nonetheless, while it is not clear how we should change our daily diction, it is clear we need to start talking about it. If people are more aware of why they subconsciously attribute gendered characteristics to certain objects, professions or concepts, they may stop thinking that those attributes are inherent, immutable. Maybe in 100 years we will laugh at the contrived dichotomy of a “useful” or a “lovely” key, and realize that a key is just an object we use to open a door.
Photo: “Man and Woman“