Beyond Sexist Beliefs – Sczesny, Moser & Wood – 2014

What is the central contention of the article?

The author seeks to argue that generic masculine language perpetuates negative gender stereotypes and can sometimes result in the exclusion of women from certain social roles. The author also argues that gender-exclusive language use is related to sexist beliefs and attitudes. These aspects of language use may be transparent to users, so it is unclear whether people explicitly act on these beliefs when using gender-exclusive forms or whether they are more implicit, habitual patterns.

Gender-exclusive form e.g “he, “his”, “him”

Gender-inclusive form e.g “he/she”, “his/hers”, “him/her”, “they”

What examples does the author use?

  • Between the 1960s and 1990s, spoken language in Australian radio programmes and parliamentary debates decreased in the frequency of use of generic masculine pronouns, increased slightly in the use of ‘he or she’ and more obviously in the frequency of use of the singular they
  • This has come about, in part, as a result of the ‘prescriptive language requirements’ of scientific and other professional associations which increasingly specify that writing avoids sexist terminology and uses gender-inclusive terms
  • Female job applicants perceived a lack of fit between themselves and potential position openings when job advertisements and job interviews used masculine forms rather than gender-inclusive expressions
  • In public opinion polls (Stohlberg and Sczesny, 2001) and court decisions (Hamilton, Hunter and Stuart-Smith, 1992), masculine formations may bias outcomes in favour of men
  • Italian language descriptions of occupations (e.g. lawyer) with feminised terms implied lower competence than gender-inclusive or masculine terms (Merkel, Maass and Frommelt, 2012)
  • During a mock job interview, women experienced a lower sense of belonging, less motivation and less expected identification in reaction to gender-exclusive language
  • Men score higher on instrumentality and on sexist attitudes, as well as using more masculine generic pronouns than women
  • Sexist language has been considered an example of subtle sexism (Swim et al., 2004) and is known to contribute to gender stereotyping (e.g. Maass and Arcuri, 1996)
  • Cralley and Ruscher (2005) found that non-sexist men used gender-inclusive language when they were not cognitively busy with another task. Thus, such language use appeared to require explicit, intentional decision making

Six important quotations from the essay:

  • “Forms of personal pronouns are considered gender-inclusive when they prompt a balanced representation of men and women.”
  • “Language functions as a device not only for transferring information but also for expressing social categorizations and hierarchies… it contributes to the construction and communication of gender.” (Maass and Arcuri, 1996) – language has the ability to communicate far more than just information – it is able to subtly manipulate people’s thoughts and opinions, especially by creating (false) stereotypes, often on gender
  • “Research has linked gender-exclusive language with sexist beliefs and attitudes.” (Swim, Mallett and Stangor, 2004) – evidence to support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the language which we use affects the way in which we think – arguing that the use of sexist/stereotypical language is one of the causes of sexist beliefs
  • “The generic use of masculine forms prevailing in many languages has far-reaching consequences in restricting the degree of female visibility.” – in many of the world’s cultures, male is seen as the norm and anything that deviates from the ‘male norm’ is seen to be ‘inferior’ – this is a concept which has a massively negative impact on women
  • “Due to the close link between language and cognitive representations, language use activates associated cognitive concepts and schemata and may thereby perpetuate stereotypical thinking and expectations.”
  • “The use of gendered pronouns and nouns conveys meaning about the persons involved and their likely dispositions” g. McConnell and Fazio found in 1996 that perceivers, especially those who had more traditional gender-role beliefs, interpreted an individual’s personality as more masculine in response to occupational titles with a man-suffix (chairman) than in response to a suffixless term (chair) and as less masculine in reaction to occupational titles with a person-suffix (chairperson)

 

  • “The use of generic masculine pronouns such as he, him and his in English language books decreased greatly across the 20th century” – Twenge, Campbell and Gentile, 2012 – this could be seen a bi-product of political correctness as people and society start to become aware of the language that they use and how it can perpetuate negative stereotypes and thoughts, so they begin to use these words/phrases less
  • “Habits form as people repeatedly perform the same behaviour and learn associations between the behaviour and recurring features if the context, including physical location, time of day, and preceding actions in a sequence… Habitual forms of speech could develop through imitation and shared social norms or could initially be practiced deliberately until they become habitual… they tend to be brought to mind automatically and to be performed with minimal input from intentions and attitudes.” – Sapir-Whorf – the language we use affects the way that we think
  1. Evaluation: do you find the author’s argument convincing?

I found the author’s argument to be quite convincing as they accumulated various other notable works and referred to them in order to provide evidence to what was being said. They also used several examples to illustrate their points, showing how and why people use sexist language, including gender-exclusive pronouns, and the detrimental impact that it can have on women in different contexts.

Issues:

  • Reading a personal pronoun such as engineer – male and reading a personal pronoun such as kindergarten teacher – female

This shows that language functions to express social categorizations and hierarchies and contributes to construction and communication of gender

  • Perceives interpreted a social targets personality as more masculine in response to occupational titles with ‘man-‘ suffix e.g. chairman than in response to suffix less term (chair) and as less masculine in reaction to occupational titles with a ‘person-‘ suffix e.g. chair person

This shows use of gendered pronouns and nouns conveying meaning about the persons involved and their likely dispositions, and also shows language use activates schemata and therefore influence stereotypical thinking and expectations.

  • Male and female college students possessing more favourable attitudes towards gender equality also expressed greater favourability towards terms ‘flight attendant’ instead of stewardess

This shows that gender related beliefs systems can lead people to adopt certain language forms

  • Participants completed sentences by choosing among pronouns and nouns e/g / he/she/the client / him or her. Participants with stronger sexist attitudes chose non-sexist pronouns less frequently than participants with less sexist attitudes

This shows a link between sexist attitudes and language use

  • Cralley and Ruscher – non-sexist men used gender inclusive language primarily when not cognitively busy with another task

Tis shows such language use requires explicit, intentional decision making

  • Swimmer al’s participants described how they would act as the main character in 3 scenarios involving a nurse, business executive, and a professor and those who enclosed modern sexual beliefs used more sexist pronouns to refer to people in the story.

This shows individual differences in gendered belief systems, including gender ole identity and endorsement of modern sexist beliefs are associated with use of gender inclusive language

  • Ouellette and Wood 1998, Verplanken and Aarts 1999

Language use also may be guided by less deliberate mechanisms perhaps activated habitually by environmental cues.

Key Quotations

‘As a tool of social practice, language functions as a device not only for transferring information, but also for expressing social categorisations and hierarchies’

  • Language contributes to construction and communication of gender
  • Fits in with larger debate as it effects how we view people I/e/ if you read the term nursery teacher you think of female or If you read the word builder you think male – this shows how language categorises into gender specific roles

‘The generic use of masculine forms prevailing in many languages has far-reaching consequences in restricting the degree of female visibility’

  • There are negative consequences for using this type of language
  • Women are less visible than men and are disadvantaged due to this language
  • Fits in with larger debate as it means females may perceive a lack of fit between themselves and potential job prospect when masculine forms are used rather than gender inclusive terms – has this powerful effects because it is a subtle way of conveying information and stereotypes about men and women – sexist/ not a balanced representation

‘Habitual forms of speech could develop through imitation and shared social norms or could be initially practiced deliberately until they become habits’

  • The root of these habits always stems from social ideologies and ideas regarding women
  • Relates to wider debate – once habits form they are brought up automatically and are performed with minimal input, increasing use of gender exclusive language

‘Gender inclusive language is a part of both deliberate and habitual factors’

  • Some people mindlessly used sexist language forms as they had in the past – more likely to rely on the standard language form without considering alternatives and implications for social change
  • Some used or failed to use gender inclusive forms more deliberately – acting on intentions along with positive or negatives attitudes towards it.

‘Due to the close link between language and cognitive representations, language use activates associated cognitive concepts’

  • Language use perpetuates stereotypical thinking and expectations
  • Use of gendered pronouns and nouns convey meaning about a person and their likely disposition

‘Sexist beliefs would indirectly influence gender- inclusive language use by affecting attitudes, norms and perceived behavioural control which in turn, would influence intentions and habits’

  • Definite link between gender inclusive language use and sexist beliefs and attitudes
  • Joint influence of deliberate and habitual processes
  • Broader issue of social representation of genders
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