How gender-neutral is language?

Research shows that with supposedly neutral terms we still automatically think of men.

This post is also available in Dutch.

One of the students has forgotten their coat and they can pick it up at the desk”. When you hear this sentence, you know it’s not necessarily a man who will come and pick up the coat, but it could instead be, for example, a woman. If you wanted to say the same thing in Dutch, it would look like this: “One of the (male) students has forgotten his coat and he can pick it up at the desk”. Remarkably, even though the gender of the coat’s owner is unknown, the masculine language forms are used: he instead of she, and his instead of her. Additionally, the Dutch word for students is also grammatically marked for gender (masculine: studenten, feminine: studentes). In the sentence above, the masculine, rather than the feminine form would be used.

Not only in Dutch, but also in many other languages, the masculine form is used as the generic form. This generic form is used when the gender is unknown or irrelevant, or when referring to a mixed group. But does our brain also interpret these terms as gender-neutral or do we automatically think they describe a man?

A male bias

When so-called “generic” forms are used, we seem to think they refer to men. This is called a male bias. A study by the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen looked at whether we interpret masculine plural forms as masculine or gender-neutral. German participants read sentences such as “The students (masculine form: Studenten) went to the cafeteria because some of the women were hungry” or “The students (feminine form: Studentinnen) went to the cafeteria because some of the men were hungry”.

While they were reading, the participants’ brain activity was measured using EEG (electroencephalography). The researchers looked at a classic effect called the P600, which is visible in brain activity when the brain finds it complicated to combine different parts of a sentence. The outcome was that this P600 was just as large if the group of Studentinnen also contains men (which is not possible, given the rules of the language), as if the group of Studenten also contains women (which is perfectly possible). This finding shows that the so-called generic plural forms are automatically interpreted as if they are about men.

In Dutch, the form he can also be used to refer to people of any gender, for example in sentence constructions such as “Someone who always promises that he will really be on time”. If it turns out that he refers to a woman, people need more time to think about it than if he refers to a man. So again a male bias is visible here.

Looking for more neutral alternatives

There is, however, another option: in English, for example, there is no distinction between students and female students; only the gender-neutral word students is used. Language research shows that such terms are interpreted neutrally, unless the term has a stereotype attached to it. For example, in England people also assume that golfers are men are dancers are women. Such stereotypes do not immediately disappear with more neutral language. Nevertheless, it is quite an improvement that English speakers do not immediately think of a man when the word student is used.

In recent years, much has been said about how we can make language more gender-neutral and gender-inclusive. Language research can play a role in this change, for example by showing how the current terms are used and understood, as was done in the studies above. Language research may also help us to find suitable neutral and inclusive alternatives to gendered terms.

Author: Marlijn ter Bekke
Buddy: Felix Klaassen
Editor: Wessel Hieselaar
Translation: Ellen Lommerse
Editor translation: Rebecca Calcott

Image by Michèle Hilbers via Unsplash

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