Language and Perception, or Why We Don’t Need to Panic About Municipal Codes

If you haven’t heard, the city of Berkeley, California did something that angered a lot of people. They recently updated their municipal codes to include more gender-neutral language, replacing words like “he” and “she” with “they” and changing words with “man” in them to their more neutral equivalents. In other words, political correctness gone wild (which is a new and unique claim).

For some of us it might not seem like a big deal, and if anything, it might seem like laudable progress. But for a lot of people, this is a bad thing. At worst it’s an affront to our nation’s values and a sign of government overreach on the language we use, and at best it’s simply ineffective and not worth the trouble.

It’s worth exploring these latter claims, because even those who aren’t likely to fall prey to concerns of government control — or offending the long-dead-but-still-deified founders of this country — may think these are sensible arguments. Without really understanding how deeply language can influence us and everything we do, it’s easy to write off changes like this as more of a publicity stunt, something that people do to feel good but that won’t actually change anything.

It’s worth pointing out that, on some level, we’ve all done this. We’ve acknowledged that language changes over time, and we’ve probably all said things in the past that we no longer say due to shifts in language and new realizations and societal views about words that tell us they’re no longer okay to say. But this isn’t a strong argument on its own, as some might say that of course they no longer say this word or that, but that’s because those individual words were clearly harmful, whereas smaller changes like this aren’t as important.

In order to confront this type of thinking we have to talk about the more subtle effects of language, and to do that, we need to talk at least a little about perception.

Without getting into too much detail, it’s not a stretch to suggest that our perception of the world is everything. What we take in from our senses is our experience, since we can’t have any other. The important thing here is that our language shapes our perceptions, because language is how we communicate, share knowledge, learn, describe things, etc. We grow up learning how to communicate a certain way, so our perception of the world is influenced by the words we have to describe it and learn about it. This is part of the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, which in its current form doesn’t quite hold that language is deterministic, but that it influences how we think and act and so on.

This is important when it comes to some of the words we might use to describe certain things. Imagine growing up with a language, like English, that uses third-person singular pronouns (he and his, she and her) and makes gender a large part of its operation, add in masculine suffixes to job titles and even objects (policeman, mailman), and you can see where people might perceive that we live in a male-dominated society.

So let’s make our first big point here: gendered language as used today helps create and maintain a gendered society.

The first question is how, and the second question is why it matters. To address the how, we covered much of this with perception. We’ll start with “Gendered Language: Psychological Principles, Evolving Practices, and Inclusive Policies” by Rebecca S. Bigler and Campbell Leaper.

First, empirical studies have demonstrated that children and adults who read material using masculine generic pronouns were overwhelmingly more likely to imagine male than female characters (e.g., Hamilton, 1988; Hyde, 1984; Martyna, 1980; Switzer, 1990). Second, applying the masculine linguistic form reinforces a tendency to label humans and other animals whose gender is unknown as male. For example, parents and teachers were overwhelmingly more likely to label animal characters in stories as male than female (DeLoache, Cassidy, & Carpenter, 1987; Gelb, 1989; Lambdin, Greer, Jibotian, Wood, & Hamilton, 2003).

Essentially, if you grow up using a language that first recognizes only a gender binary, then defaults to using masculine forms of words as neutral or ambiguous, you’ll be more likely to assume that the “default” is male. That is, unless a gender is explicitly stated in something, you’ll probably assume it’s male. This doesn’t just occur with ambiguities, though; this can start to affect how you look at certain professions or attitudes or expressions. If you go long enough hearing “policeman,” your assumption might be that police officers are male. And there’s no malice in this assumption, it’s just what you’ve always heard.

Why would this be a problem, exactly? Sure some words have “man” in them, but we know what we mean when we say those words, right? Obviously equality is a thing, and if a woman wants to be a police officer she can go right ahead. The name of the profession isn’t stopping her!

See again the article by Bigler and Leaper.

Third, the widespread use of the masculine generic systematically reinforces the higher status of males relative to females. As MacKay (1980) noted, the masculine generic meets the criteria for effective propaganda through its frequent occurrence, early age of exposure, and association with high-prestige sources (e.g., teachers, books). In these ways, children repeatedly learn the lesson that males have higher status in society than females.

This starts to answer the why it matters question. By itself, it might not seem like the word “man” in something presents a direct barrier to anyone for any reason. But the problem is nothing happens by itself. A woman won’t go to school and train and practice and study to become an officer only to have her dreams dashed at the last minute by the name of her profession. It starts much earlier, when she reads books about policemen, hears about policemen, sees policemen on TV, interacts with policemen, and eventually comes to think this career is not for her.

It can also influence the people who are already in power. So if a woman does decide to enter a field that’s traditionally male dominated, she may have a much harder time getting in than her male peers — not because of any overt and purposeful sexism, but because she’s at a disadvantage because of her gender. And then, even once hired, women face more issues with promotions than their male peers due to structural issues and entrenched beliefs. These come not just from the people in charge who are responsible for hiring, but women themselves, which can affect their decisions on which jobs to apply for and their perceptions of their own abilities.

Managers — male and female — continue to take viable female candidates out of the running, often on the assumption that the woman can’t handle certain jobs and also discharge family obligations. In our Centered Leadership research, we found that many women, too, hold limiting beliefs that stand in their own way — such as waiting to fill in more skills or just waiting to be asked.

So it’s not as though these influences from language only affect those in power; they affect everyone. It’s not just that women may not get jobs in certain fields because of our perceptions about gender, it’s that they might be discouraged from applying or showing interest to begin with.

Consider the Scully Effect which looks at attitudes toward STEM fields in the context of the TV show The X-Files, specifically the prominence of fictional character Dana Scully. The Green Davis Institute on Gender in Media explains, “Scully was one of the first multidimensional female characters in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field to be featured on a popular television show, and the first to play a leading role.”

The institute’s survey looked at viewers of The X-Files and their attitudes toward STEM fields, where men have outnumbered women by ratios of as much as 13:1 according to a 2010 research report by the American Association of University Women. The survey’s findings were not exactly subtle.

  • Nearly two-thirds (63%) of women who are familiar with Dana Scully say she increased their belief in the importance of STEM.
  • Among women who are familiar with Scully’s character, half (50%) say Scully increased their interest in STEM.
  • Nearly two-thirds (63%) of women that work in STEM say Dana Scully served as their role model.

Other reports have shown that, when negative perceptions and stereotypes about women in math and science are taken away, performance gaps between men and women virtually disappear. So if a fictional character can positively influence so many people, is it a stretch to assume our use of language can do the same?

Note also that this is a cyclical problem. Many fields and social roles are referred to using male-centric language, which is backed by the fact that there are more men in those roles, which means the language is harder to change, which means women might be less likely to occupy those fields, and so on. The 2016 report “Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination?” explains:

Ironically, recent research has documented that linguistic asymmetries prevent girls and women from aspiring to male-dominated roles (see Chatard et al., 2005; Gaucher et al., 2011; Stout and Dasgupta, 2011; Vervecken et al., 2013; Vervecken and Hannover, 2015) and thereby perpetuate the higher accessibility of men in these roles.

This comes to the second major point: Using gender-neutral language has the potential to reduce stereotyping and discrimination.

This one is a little more tricky to “prove” empirically due to the information that’s currently available. Because of how powerful language is, it’s not feasible to try to prove how changes can work over the course of a week or two. But current studies show that while there are several complicating factors, gender-neutral language can have a less negative influence than our current gendered language does. So now that we’ve looked at the harm gendered language can cause we can look at how we might go about fixing it — and if pursuing changes to the language we use actually does anything.

The extremely simplified answer is, “Yes, but very slowly.” Much research has been inconclusive when looking at the immediate effects of changing the language used among adults, and while small differences here and there have been found, the consensus is that, by itself, changing words won’t have a huge impact, at least not right away.

Part of this is because changes to language usually happen pretty slowly, and part of the barrier here is getting people to use this new language across the board. This can be really really difficult when people either don’t see the point in the changes to begin with or think that they’re too old to change. The good news, for my older readers, is that age doesn’t seem to play a part in understanding. From the earlier-mentioned 2016 report:

Third, arguments against Gender-Fair Language have routinely included the presumed difficulty of understanding GFL texts (Parks and Roberton, 1998). Empirical investigations have refuted this argument and have shown that text quality (Rothmund and Christmann, 2002) and cognitive processing were not damaged (Braunetal., 2007). When GFL texts were compared to (generic) masculine texts, there were no differences in read ability and esthetic appeal (Blake and Klimmt, 2010).

Nonetheless, there is almost always resistance to change, which plays a major factor in something like language. It also has to be habitual and natural rather than feeling like it’s forced.

There is still a relation between people who use more inclusive language and people who are less strict in their views of gender roles and stereotypes, however. Further, there’s also a link between the type of language used and societal gender inequality. From Sczesny, Moser, and Formanowicz:

Countries with grammatical gender languages were found to reach lower levels of social gender equality than countries with natural gender languages or genderless languages. This suggests that a higher visibility of gender asymmetries is accompanied by societal gender inequalities. A survey on sexist attitudes yielded additional evidence for this relationship (Wasserman and Weseley, 2009): respondents (native speakers of English as well as bilinguals) exhibited more sexist attitudes when the survey was conducted in a grammatical gender language (Spanish or French) than in a natural gender language (English).

So regardless of which perspective we look at this issue from, it seems like the problem is easily identifiable. And the solution, while not as clear cut, seems to point to more gender neutral language.

But why, you might ask, should things like municipal codes be updated? Isn’t that a waste of time, not to mention money? Shouldn’t we wait until the language we want is more broadly used before the government gets all up in our business like this?

To start, the updates required roughly $600, which is a great deal for the fiscally concerned. And, as covered above for those who find themselves reading municipal codes on a regular basis, the changes shouldn’t have any impact on your ability to read or understand them.

But another reason this is actually beneficial is because changes made to “official” documents like these increase the reception of the language within. That is, once official documents start using more gender neutral language, it’s that much easier for other people to accept this language as part of everyday use rather than just politically correct fringe-speak.

Moreover, our review suggests that — independent of language structure — GFL is more frequent and more accepted when it is backed by official regulations and when the use of biased language is sanctioned in someway (e.g., in official publications or texts; American Psychological Association, 1975, 2009; Bundesministerium für Frauen und Öffentlichen Dienst, 2009; see Hodel et al., 2013). The relationship between policy-making and social change is surely bidirectional. On the one hand, gender equality movements and their demands find their way into legislation. On the other hand, official regulations may stipulate social change by facilitating the internalization of new norms and enforcing their execution.

So if one problem with implementing this type of language is that it just doesn’t seem to be used and therefore seems pointless, this is a way to help with that.

In all, this is unlikely to produce a sudden and sweeping change, but not every change has to be. What’s important is that we recognize the potential in changes like this rather than disregarding them because they don’t seem immediately important or because we individually don’t think they’re of any relevance. Language is incredibly powerful and its influences run incredibly deep, and it also gets really complicated so it’s worth looking at all the ways it can influence us and our views, attitudes, and perceptions before we write something like this off as either political correctness gone mad or a feel-good-but-otherwise-useless endeavor.

Photo by Janet Vincent on Flickr

Author, photographer, gamer, mediocre violinist, and chocolate enthusiast.

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