Language and gender roles

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Evidence suggests that word order can reinforce gender beliefs. This matters because language has the power to alter people’s viewpoints – if we choose our words with care. “His and her” is a common expression when both genders are addressed, but “by ordering words one way rather than the other, we conjure up a particular mental model in the minds of our audiences – either reinforcing an existing stereotype or slightly puncturing it,” says Selin Kesebir, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.

Masculine generics, such as the use of “his” when the person in question isn’t necessarily male, have consistently been shown to evoke mental images of men rather than women, even if they are accompanied by explicit statements that the reference should be understood to include both genders. “These mental images have consequences,” says Kesebir. “In more than one study, women were less likely to pursue a job when it was described in the masculine generic as opposed to gender-neutral language.”

Nowadays, the prescription to put the man first in written communications is gone, but male-first phrases such as “his or her” are still common partly because people have a strong tendency to repeat pre-existing dominant patterns in language. Long-held habits are hard to break.

Kesebir predicted that people showed a strong tendency to reproduce the prevalent word order - “man and woman”. In one of her studies, she invited participants to write a story about either “a businesswoman and a businessman” or “a businessman and a businesswoman”. Dr Kesebir said “when you start with, ‘businesswoman’ vs ‘businessman’, it’s a very subtle manipulation. You’re just changing the order of two words. I was really curious to see whether a different word order would change people’s perceptions.” She predicted that whichever was mentioned first in the phrases would feature more centrally in the story.

Her hunch proved correct: across all the stories, the businessman was significantly more likely to be mentioned before the businesswoman, with 68.3 per cent of the stories first mentioning the man and 31.7 per cent the woman. But the instructions affected the outcome: the ratio of stories mentioning the businessman first was 87.5 per cent for stories written about “a businessman and a businesswoman”, whereas it was 49.4 per cent for stories in which the instruction was to write about “a businesswoman and a businessman”.

“What this study shows is that the order of the two genders in a conjoined phrase has communicational consequences,” says Dr Kesebir. “When the woman was mentioned before the man in a business context, participants constructed an imaginary world in which the woman was more central and received more attention. These findings provide further evidence that the order of conjoined words is perceived to indicate relevance.”

In the 21st century, where women belong as much in the workplace as at the kitchen sink, and where many men are as happy to be seen pushing a pram as carrying a briefcase, will what we say about ourselves eventually catch up with what we do?

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