Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gender-Neutral Speech

I’m taking AP Psychology this year, and so far it’s been a lot of work, but I do enjoy it. As I was doing homework on language and thinking, I came across some interesting studies about the effect of using gender-neutral speech.

Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at University of Wisconsin - Madison, conducted a study in 1984 where she asked children to finish stories for which she gave them a first line, like “When a kid goes to school, ___ often feels excited on the first day.” When Dr. Hyde used the word he in the blank, almost all of the kids’ stories were about boys. When she used he or she, about a third of the stories were about girls. This effect is not only present in children, but has also been seen in similar studies with adolescents and adults.

Allen McConnell and Russell Fazio, professors at Miami University and Ohio State University, respectively, did a really interesting 1996 study about using chairman vs. chairperson. When they described ambiguous actions done by a chairman to study participants, they tended to feel that the chairman as assertive and independent. When McConnell and Fazio described a chairperson’s actions, the study participants felt the chairperson’s personality was warmer and more caring.

The results of these studies, plus many others that prove that gender-neutral speech does make a difference, aren’t really news to me. I think feminists have understood the importance of using gender-neutral terminology ever since the 1960s, but it’s always good to know that the rest of the world agrees.

In the he vs. he or she study that I mentioned, I wonder what the effect would be if the study had also monitored what children wrote based on using she or he and just she. Considering the study is almost thirty years old at this point, I also wonder what today’s children would write. My conjecture is that the amount of stories about girls would go up, but I’d be really interested in seeing such a study.

This brings up another question, though - will it ever be split down the middle? Will children ever be able to visualize both men and women? This is part of the reason I dislike it when people use only she. In my opinion, it’s just as bad as using he, just more politically correct. He or she has always been the happy medium in my eyes, but now I’m wondering if I should be using she or he.

While this issue isn’t terribly important in the grand scheme of women’s rights, the language we use about women and men is significant. Based on everything I’ve learned in AP Psych so far, language greatly impacts how a person thinks and feels. In a 1992 study, N. Dinges and P. Hull showed that bilingual people sometimes reveal completely different personalities when taking the same personality test in two languages. If our language doesn’t respect women, how can we expect our future generations to value women’s contributions to the world?


  1. Right on! I'm trying to use "they", albeit incorrectly, in place of gendered articles like he or she. We don't have articles pertain to race, age, or other demographic, so why do we separate out gender? Love this post!

  2. I used to be on team "they," but I annoyed myself so much with being grammatically incorrect that I switched over to "he or she."