Choose your words carefully, or so the old saying goes. Though usually meant in the context of maintaining harmony in human relationships, there’s another reason we should choose our words carefully and wisely: A study by Stav Atir, assistant professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, looks at how the language we use when talking about gender matters because it can both combat and increase bias.
A psychologist by training, Atir’s recent paper, “Girlboss? Highlighting Versus Downplaying Gender Through Language,” examines how gender marking and gender neutrality can have both inherent strengths and weaknesses that come into play depending upon when and how they are used.
WSB sat down with Atir recently to talk about her work published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences:
WSB: What sparked your interest in this particular area of research?
Atir: I was giving a talk on one of my papers from 2018 that focuses on how we use professionals’ names differently depending on their gender. We find that people often use last names to refer to famous professionals in various domains—it’s a common reference method—but that it’s more likely to occur when talking about famous men than equally famous women. One of the takeaways was that when it comes to gender, language matters. As a result of that talk, the editor of this journal asked me if I wanted to write something about how language matters.
When we think about gender—and this comes up not just in my own research but in everyday life—there is this tension in the way that we use language. On one hand, we can use language to highlight the achievements of women and other minorities or underrepresented groups. And on the other, we have this desire for these demographics to matter less than they currently do, and we try to convey that desire through language—through gender-neutral language or through race-neutral language. So, I thought it would be interesting to write about research findings that speak to that tension.
WSB: The “Girlboss” paper addresses that push-pull balance of alternately highlighting and downplaying gender through gender marking and gender neutrality, opposite approaches that may be situation-dependent. Can you tell us more about what those terms mean?
Atir: Yes, the paper is focused on pointing out the advantages and the drawbacks of each. It’s a more difficult task to decide: What are the specific situations in which we might want to use one or the other? Because the drawbacks don’t disappear. We have to decide what we care most about in any particular situation.
Gender marking—such as “policewoman,” “women’s basketball,” or “the female CEO”—emphasizes gender. It’s often used to spotlight women in high-status professions, which we may want to do to change people’s perceptions of who can be successful in those fields, but it also makes men and women seem fundamentally different. In professions where there is already a gender disparity—for example, if you mark the gender of the female CEO—you’re also reinforcing the perception that it’s not normal, that she’s the exception to the rule. Gender marking can perpetuate stereotypical thinking and make the target of the marking seem more unusual, which is sometimes the opposite of what we want.
Yet, if we look to gender neutrality as the solution, we encounter different problems. Gender-neutral language, such as “the CEO,” can minimize the importance of gender in the professional sphere by hiding gender and deemphasizing gender’s role. There are times when we want to do that, but gender-neutral language can also hide women because research shows that gender neutral is often not neutral at all—it’s male. When someone describes a person without specifying gender, our mental image often defaults to a man. So, if we opt for gender-neutral language, we may want to signal that gender should be irrelevant, but what we may end up doing instead is making women invisible.
WSB: It’s not uncommon to see gender marking in terms of how our culture talks about working mothers as well, right? Articles will sometimes describe a professional woman as “a vice president with Company X and she has three kids.”
Atir: This makes me think of a funny social media parody account called “Man Who Has It All.” It talks about men in the same way we as a culture talk about women to show how ridiculous some of the sentiments sound when the genders are reversed. “He was a scientist and a father! Wow, he really had it all.”
WSB: It is interesting to see gender neutrality with the evolution of words like “nurse,” which we used to assume would automatically be a female.
Atir: As we see more exemplars, hear more stories, and see more role models, our mental representations change. We have more stored mental representations of the first people that will come to mind when you say “person,” for example, which highlights the way that language is fluid and culture specific. The associations that we have with certain words now are not what they were 20 years ago, and probably not what they will be 20 years from now.
Thinking about language: I am Israeli, so my native language is Hebrew. And Hebrew is highly gendered; it’s hard to say anything without specifying a gender. Even objects are gendered. So, these languages face additional barriers. There are groups devoted to making language more inclusive via different approaches such as new words and new fonts that leave the gender ambiguous, or phrasings that don’t reveal gender, so that the emphasis is very much on gender neutrality.
WSB: What do you hope people come away with after reading your study and learning about your work in this space?
Atir: Language is one tool that we can and should use to express our opinions and potentially drive social change. I would like people to be thoughtful about the way that they do this, to be aware of both the advantages and the drawbacks of their linguistic choices.
Ultimately, I think language is going to be only a small part of what drives change forward. And as we become a more egalitarian society, the way we use language to achieve our goals is also going to look different and evolve.