Do gender fair languages affect gender equality? Here's the research

Saga Briggs

Language has a powerful impact on how we perceive the world. That includes the terminology we use that’s associated with gender.

Many languages are gendered, while others are considered genderless or neutral. Some studies have shown that cultures that speak gendered languages also have higher gender inequality, while genderless and neutral languages such as Finnish have higher gender equality.

As over one-third of people worldwide speak a gendered language, this is a fairly universal issue, and researchers have been studying it for long enough to draw a few conclusions. In this post, we’ll share some of these findings with you, but first—a few definitions.

What is a gender-fair language?

First off, there’s a difference between gender fair, gender neutral, grammatical gender, genderless, and natural gender languages. Here’s what you need to know:

The difference between gender fair, gender neutral, grammatical gender, genderless, and natural gender languages.

1. Grammatical gender languages

In these languages, every noun has a grammatical gender, and the gender of personal nouns most often expresses the gender of the referent. Examples are German, French, and Czech.

2. Natural gender languages

Personal nouns tend to be gender-neutral (e.g., colleague), and referential gender is expressed pronominally (e.g., he/she). Examples are English and Swedish.

3. Genderless languages

Neither personal nouns nor pronouns are used to identify gender. Gender is only expressed through attributes such as ‘male/female [teacher]’ or in lexical gender words such as ‘woman’ or ‘father.’ “Consequently,” write researchers at the University of Bern, “gender and linguistic gender asymmetries are much more visible in grammatical gender languages than in natural gender languages or genderless languages.” Examples are Finnish and Turkish.

4. Gender neutral languages

In these languages, gender-differentiated forms are replaced by neutral forms (e.g., English policeman by police officer). Neutralization has been recommended, especially for natural gender languages and genderless languages. Take pronouns, for example. Recently, a gender-neutral third-person pronoun was invented in Swedish: hen. It first appeared in 2012 in a children’s book, where it served as an alternative to the gender-marked pronouns “she” (hon) and “he” (han).

5. Gender-fair languages

Gender-fair languages are systemically altered to support fair treatment of all genders within a culture or society.

Evidence of gender bias in languages

Gender bias in job titles and job ads for engineers.

Job titles and job ads

In a recent study, German and Belgian school children were found to be influenced by the grammatical form of job titles. When jobs were described in the masculine (e.g., German Ingenieure, the masculine plural form of “engineers”), the mental accessibility of female jobholders was lower than when jobs were presented with feminine-masculine word pairs (e.g., Ingenieurinnen und Ingenieure (“female and male engineers”).

In a study on Austrian German, candidates for leadership positions were influenced by the gendered wording of job advertisements. “Men were perceived as fitting a high-status leadership position better than women when a masculine job title was used (Geschäftsführer, masc. ‘chief executive officer, CEO’),” explains a research team from the University of Bern. “But when the job ad was gender-fair (Geschäftsführerin/Geschäftsführer, fem./masc. ‘[female/male] CEO’), women and men were judged as equally suited.” This pattern wasn’t found when it came to lower-status positions (e.g., project manager).

Gender-fair vs. gendered languages

In an interview with Hualin Xiao, a recent PhD graduate in cognitive science from the Institut Jean Nicod, Xiao describes her study showing that gender-fair language increases the visibility of women in our language and our minds. But she also highlights the complexity of these studies and warns against drawing quick conclusions: “Women’s roles are more likely to be thought of when presented in gender-fair linguistic forms,” she says. “When presented in their masculine form, the professions for which the largest male bias was found turn out to be those dominated by females. However, masculine generics are found to induce accurate perceptions of gender ratios in professions dominated by males. Thus, whether and how the use of masculine generics really has led to women’s underrepresentation in male-dominated fields remains unknown.”

Studies outside of academia also highlight biases associated with gendered languages. Grammatical gender is associated with a nearly 15 percentage point gap in female labor force participation relative to men, even after controlling for various geographic and economic factors that could be driving the difference.

In practical terms, gendered languages could account for 125 million women worldwide being out of the labor force. A study by the Center for Global Development showed that “attitudes toward women are also influenced by gendered languages—helping to explain how gendered languages could translate into outcomes like lower female labor force participation.”

Drawing on data from the World Values Survey, economists and researchers Ozier and Jakiela found that people who speak a gendered language are more likely to agree with statements like “On the whole, men make better business executives than women do” or “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, women are just as likely as men to hold these attitudes, suggesting just how pervasive the effect of language is on beliefs.

Ozier and Jakiela also studied countries where both a gendered and non-gendered indigenous language are widely spoken, such as Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, and India. They found echoes of their previous findings: “Gendered languages are consistently associated with lower female labor force participation,” they write. “In these countries gendered languages are also associated with lower rates of primary and secondary school completion.”

We also have to watch out for algorithmic bias when it comes to gendered languages. One study found that Google Translate sometimes assumes that, when translating from other languages to English, job holders for roles in science, technology engineering and medicine are male. Another study in 2015 found that Google Images for "CEO" or "author" most frequently featured men, even though in 2015 the US had more female than male authors, and over a quarter of its CEOs were female.

Moving toward gender-fairness in languages

Efforts are being made to improve gender equality and fairness in languages across the globe:

  • The BBC recently reported that in 2021, a Spanish communications company invented the word matrocinio (the female equivalent of patrocinio, patronage) to refer to the support given by someone to the arts.
  • In 2017, The Atlantic wrote about the announcement of a new keyboard in France that would include a gender-inclusive median-period: “The move will please not only the proponents of inclusive writing, but also the speakers of minority languages in France (like Catalan, Occitan, and Gascon), who have always used the median-period as a phonetic marker.”
  • In 2019, Hanover became the first German city to require all official communication–including emails, fliers, and forms–to use gender-neutral nouns. “Instead of using the word for a male voter (wähler) and a female voter (wählerin),” reported the Washington Post, “the municipality would instead use words that don’t convey one gender or another, like voting person (wählende).”
  • A few other initiatives have been made in Germany, such as introducing an uppercase “I” sandwiched in between compound nouns, addressing both males and females at once. They’ve also added an asterisk, known as the “gender star,” to include citizens who identify as neither male nor female.
  • Another outstanding initiative has been the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, which has championed a third gender in Hebrew, partly drawing on queer and non-binary references in Jewish texts. In Israel, a related approach is to put both the male and female cases on nouns and verbs, sometimes with a period in between, so that all are fluidly included,” writes Rick Noack for The Washington Post. “For example, ‘I write’ — ‘kotev’ (כותב) in the masculine and ‘kotevet’ (כותבת) in the feminine — alternatively could be כותב.ת in this form.”

Have gender-fair language initiatives made an impact?

Launching initiatives like these is complex, however, and not all attempts at gender-fair language work in each country. For instance, a study led by a research team in Central Europe found that attempts to use gender-fair language in Poland did not work as effectively as the same attempt in Austria: “Our results indicate that in Poland, gender-fair language has negative connotations and therefore, detrimental effects particularly when used in gender-related contexts,” the team writes. “Conversely, in Austria, where gender-fair language has been implemented and used for some time, there are no such negative effects. This pattern of results may inform the discussion about formal policies regulating the use of gender-fair language.”

Reaching gender fairness across languages may not be about an ultimate end point so much as the process of continual improvement. These initiatives highlight a way forward, and research will continue to show us whether these initiatives are making an impact. As a foreign language learner, you can take it upon yourself to be aware of the language you use and the influence it may have upon both speakers and listeners.

You can also stay up-to-date with best practice in written communication in your target language, doing a little research on which pronouns can be used in which contexts and what alternative options are available for otherwise gendered nouns.

The more people we have creating an environment of care and sensitivity toward gender fairness in language, the easier it will be to change long-held cultural perceptions linked to language itself.

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