For some, gender-fair language and writing are indispensable tools for improving the visibility of women in the unconscious and for acting on the sexist biases inherent in our asymmetrical language system. For others, they are dramatic, dangerous and unnecessary additions to our language. But what is the real effect of gender-fair Language on our gender representations? The article "How Fair Is Gender-Fair Language? Insights from Gender Ratio Estimations in French," published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, sheds some light on this question.
Interview with Hualin Xiao, a recent PhD graduate in cognitive science from the Institut Jean Nicod and first author of the publication.
Hualin Xiao explains that like many other languages, French has a sex-based grammatical gender system where personal nouns often have distinct masculine and feminine forms, as in caissier and caissière. The two grammatical genders are used asymmetrically: the masculine gender can take on a generic role, in that when we talk about a group of people that include men and women, or when the sex of these people is unknown, we typically use the masculine form. The feminine form, however, is used exclusively to refer to a group including only women.
It is in relation to these traditional male stereotyped linguistic forms that the idea of a gender-fair language, or gender-inclusive language is developing. “The idea of gender-fair language is to make the French language more inclusive by making the feminine gender more visible, as we see in double-gender (caissiers et caissières) and mid-dot (caissier·ère·s) forms, says the young researcher. The latter is also known as écriture inclusive to the French community”.
Gender-fair language: a necessary solution for more equity or an unnecessary burden on grammar?
For the past ten years, the demand for a more egalitarian language, including the écriture inclusive, has been particularly strong among third-wave feminists. In line with this demand, the feminisation of job names has been accepted by the Académie Française in 2019. However, the use of egalitarian languages and scripts is divisive: in May 2021, for example, inclusive writing was officially banned from use in national education, even though several universities had officially adopted it.
Within the discussions around these linguistic forms, one of the heated societal debates is on whether the use of masculine generics leaves women underrepresented in the minds of language speakers. “Some people are concerned that women and women’s roles in society are less visible when the language constantly shows the masculine gender, explains Hualin Xiao. Of course, this concern is not shared by all French speakers, as some others believe that linguistic forms have little influence on how people think about gender roles […] and hence it is unnecessary to use a longer double-gender or an unconventional, deliberately invented, mid-dot form”. In France, stronger forms of skepticism are targeted specifically towards the mid-dot form, which is particularly controversial. “The opponents of this form argue that it damages the orthography of the language, and creates confusion and obstacles in learning to read and write.” However, the actual effect of the midpoint is not well known. “Our study is the first study to test the controversial mid-dot form (écriture inclusive) " adds Hualin Xiao.
Gender-fair language promotes the visibility of women in our language and our minds
Does linguistic form influence our perceptions of gender or not? This is the question that Hualin Xiao and her colleagues asked in this study. To answer this question, they selected native French-speaking participants living in France and divided them into three randomised groups (using the "randomised controlled trial" RCT method). The participants read a short text about a gathering in which professional groups were presented either in the masculine gender for the first group, in the double-gender for the second, or with the mid-dot plural forms for the last group. Immediately after reading the text, participants were asked to estimate the percentage of women present at this gathering. “We tested a variety of professional groups such as to ensure that any observed effect generalizes across professions”.
The study shows that, compared to the masculine form, the two gender-fair linguistic forms increase the estimated percentage of women, regardless of the type of profession. The authors observed an overall increase across gender-balanced or 'neutral' professions (e.g. musicien·ne·s, acteur·trice·s ou employé·e.s de banque), female-stereotyped professions (e.g. couturier·ère·s , assistant·e·s maternel·le ou esthéticien·ne·s) and male-stereotyped professions (e.g. éboueur·euse·s, electricien·ne·s ou mathématicien·ne·s).
A better representation of women for a more accurate view of reality?
By favouring the representation of women in the minds of readers, do these Gender-fair linguistic forms lead to a more accurate estimation of reality? This is the second question that the authors of this study, the first to empirically test the influence of language on the accuracy of perceptions of gender distribution in various professions, asked themselves.
Hualin Xiao explains that depending on the type of professions, linguistic forms have differential effects on the accuracy of the perceived gender ratios. “People underestimated the percentage of women in gender-balanced professions after they saw the masculine form, but their estimates were accurate when the professions are shown in the gender-fair forms”. However, for male-stereotyped professions, seeing masculine form led to accurate estimates, while people who saw gender-fair forms tended to overestimate the percentage of women there. “For female-stereotyped professions, participants in all three conditions underestimated the percentage of women” conclude the researcher.
The complex search for solutions for social change towards gender equality
“The goal of my research is to understand gender inequality, including its origins, the forces contributing to its persistence, and what are the conditions for a social change toward gender equality, explains Hualin Xiao. As a way of communication, language can transmit our thoughts about gender, our gender role beliefs, stereotypes, and attitudes across cultures and from one generation to another. It’s just natural to ask the question of whether language plays a role in gender inequality”.
In an effort to elucidate this issue, this study shows that gender-fair language increases the visibility of women in our language and our mind. “Women’s roles are more likely to be thought of when presented in gender-fair linguistic forms, she sums up, adding however that the causal relation is still unclear: “when presented in their masculine form, the professions for which the largest male bias was found turn out to be those dominated by females. However, masculine generics are found to induce accurate perceptions of gender ratios in professions dominated by males. Thus, whether and how the use of masculine generics really has led to women’s underrepresentation in male-dominated fields remains unknown”.
For the young researcher, this study reveals trade-offs between gender-fairness and the accuracy of perceived gender ratios, when these concepts come apart in people’s views about which linguistic forms are most desirable. “For example, proponents of gender-fair language need to weigh the obvious orthographic drawbacks of the mid-dot form against its potential advantage in terms of representational accuracy compared to the double-gender form”.
Native of China, Hualin Xiao graduated last December with a PhD in cognitive science from ENS-PSL under the supervision of Brent Strickland (IJN, ENS) and Sharon Peperkamp (LSCP, ENS) with the thesis "Gender in language and gender in the social mind". Motivated by her observations that women are not able to enjoy equal rights to education, economic and social participation as their male counterparts, she explains that she feels obliged to understand this problem and try to find a solution. “My PhD research centers on language and gender bias. Specifically, I run psychology experiments to investigate the influences of linguistic forms and gender stereotype on people’s mental representations of gender, and I empirically investigate how individuals’ moral ideology about gender equality affects their perceptions of gender bias in hiring”.
TO GO FURTHER
Xiao H, Strickland B, Peperkamp S. (2022). How Fair is Gender-Fair Language? Insights from Gender Ratio Estimations in French. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. doi:10.1177/0261927X221084643