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Language linked to gender inequality, research suggests

Studies indicate countries with gendered languages are more likely to have wider gender gaps

Countries where citizens speak gendered languages — in which nouns are masculine or feminine — display a higher rate of gender inequality than countries with languages that do not ascribe gender to nouns, said Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino, the only full-time psychology professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.

She presented her research about the relationship between language and gender inequality at a lecture hosted by Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Friday in Metcalf 305.

Though women are now overtaking men in areas like college enrollment, many inequalities still exist between men and women, Prewitt-Freilino said.

“In no country is there even equal pay,” she said. “Women are paid about 16 percent less than men.”

But the amount of inequality “is not uniform across cultures,” she added, citing language as a possible contributing factor in such differences in equality.

Language is “usually seen as not that important, but research over the last decade has suggested that how we speak also influences how we think,” she said.

Prewitt-Freilino hypothesized that “countries that speak predominantly gendered language should evidence less gender equality relative to countries with natural gender and genderless language countries.” Gendered languages are those with masculine and feminine words, such as Spanish. Natural gender languages are those in which most nouns are not gendered, but pronouns like “he” or “she” are gendered, such as in English. Genderless languages are those in which both nouns and pronouns are not gendered.

Prewitt-Freilino took data from 134 countries, of which 111 had primary languages that fit into one of the three categories. She identified 26 genderless, 12 natural gender and 73 gendered language countries and then looked at the Global Gender Gap index, a measurement of national gender gap, for each of the countries. The GGG index “benchmarks national gender gaps of 136 countries on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria,” according to its website. Each country is given a score between zero  — denoting absolute inequality — and one, for absolute equality.

Prewitt-Freilino found that the average scores for countries with genderless, natural gender and gendered languages were 0.68, 0.74 and 0.67, respectively.

The data supported her hypothesis that gendered languages have the most inequality, she said.

Since countries with similar languages often have other common links, Prewitt-Freilino looked at human development, religious tradition, geographic location and system of government as covariates that might affect the data. She then examined the data after accounting for these covariates, and found the average scores for countries with genderless, natural gender and gendered languages to be 0.70, 0.72 and 0.67, respectively: Gendered language countries still had the highest average inequality.

Prewitt-Freilino said previous studies found the same phenomenon that she noted.

In one study she cited, German-speaking and Spanish-speaking participants were asked to describe qualities of a key, a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. The German speakers often used words like “hard, heavy, jagged and metal” to describe the key, whereas Spanish speakers often used words like “golden, intricate, little and shiny” to describe the key.

In another study she cited, children were asked to write a story in response to a prompt with one of the three pronouns: “When a kid goes to school, (he/they/he or she) often feels excited on the first day.” The researchers found that only 12 percent and 18 percent wrote about female characters when given “he” or “they,” respectively. But 42 percent wrote about female characters when “he or she” was used in the prompt. Prewitt-Freilino suggested that this may be because people do not think about writing a female character unless “she” is explicitly mentioned.

Though she has identified an initial correlation, Prewitt-Freilino continues her work on gender differences in language use and perception, studying how the way men and women describe success and failure affects what others think of them.

She hypothesized that “women would view a candidate more positively when they shared success (by using “we”) and took personal responsibility for a failure (by using “I”) whereas men would view a candidate more positively when they took credit for success and (deflected) blame for loss.”

Prewitt-Freilino then conducted a new study, in which participants were asked to read a quotation from a student government candidate. The quote described a fundraising goal, where the candidate either failed or succeeded and used either “I” or “we” when discussing the fundraiser. She found that women liked “we” more if the candidate succeeded, whereas men valued personal success more and tended to not support the candidates who said, “I failed.”

She concluded the lecture by describing how subtle language differences can shape thought processes, which can affect social interaction.

“Not only is language a source for conveying current systems of hierarchy, but (it) might also be a way of reproducing them,” she said.

Xuan Zhao GS, who attended the lecture, said she enjoyed the lecture, as it was interesting to think about how language influences gender equity.

She expressed surprise to learn that some school kids have a male-dominant bias, as evidenced by one of the studies mentioned.


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