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The Daily Tar Heel

Let’s talk about ... gender

We use gendered pronouns all the time in English: he/she, his/hers, him/her. We learn early on to refer to people by their genders, but does this grammatical rule affect the way that we treat men and women?

Virtually every language in the world makes some distinction between the genders, and there are three types of gendering.

“Gendered” languages like Spanish assign grammatical genders to all nouns. English is a “natural-gender” language which uses gender only in words that refer to people, particularly pronouns. There are also “genderless” languages, like Chinese, which do not have any grammatical gender distinctions.

While gendering may just be a reflection of the major genders, linguists and psychologists have found evidence that it can actually affect our thinking.

One study showed that speakers of gendered languages perceive masculine or feminine characteristics of an object based on its grammatical gender.

These paradigms can have larger societal effects, particularly with sexism and gender inequality.

This is evident with grammatical conventions like the masculine generic, using male pronouns when the gender is unknown or irrelevant. This usage, although a rule of formal writing, disregards the existence and participation of women in many contexts.

The effect of language on gender equality was recently investigated in the journal Sex Roles. Researchers correlated the languages in 111 countries with their gender equality score in the 2009 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. They controlled for variables such as religion or government.

On average, the countries with gendered languages scored lower on overall gender equality than countries with natural-gender or genderless languages. Countries with natural-gender languages scored highest on average.

The authors propose that gender equality might be lower with gendered language because of the increased sensitivity to gender distinctions. But a genderless language might not be the solution because genderless pronouns can still carry bias of the masculine generic.

Natural-gender languages might be best for promoting gender equality because of “gender symmetrical” constructions like “he/she,” which are difficult in gendered grammar and impossible with genderless pronouns.

Note that the differences are not huge, about 0.05-0.07 on a scale of 0 to 1, and language is just one among many social and political factors.

There have been different attempts to solve the problem of gender in English, like the singular nonspecific “they” or combination “he/she.” Gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” or “hir” have been created to include gender-variant persons as well, but these have not been widely adopted.

Reducing gender bias in language will not be easy. As clumsy as the “he/she” construction can sound, it might be one of our best tools in creating gender-fair language.

In the meantime, we’ll have to find other ways in the fight against gender inequality, even though it will be long and hard.

That’s what he/she said.

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