Does language affect gender equality? Public  

The study of languages reveals a lot more than mere differences in verbal and written communication around the globe. Languages reveal a lot about a people’s belief systems, political ideologies, and perceived social order – languages are a mirror into how communities see the world and how they in turn, see their individual and collective roles within it.

There are languages that have primarily existed in verbal form and others that have their roots in both written and oral traditions. There are varied writing systems from abjads to constructed scripts, as well as gendered and gender-neutral languages. With so much variation, wouldn’t it seem plausible that the way in which a language is constructed and used might influence how we think and feel? Is it not also plausible that gendered languages might have an impact on how differently the sexes of those languages view their positions of authority as well as their professional and political opportunities? We thought they might, so we decided to explore this further.

The English language – and the gradual shift toward gender equality

While some language families have masculine and feminine genders for every single noun, others have no grammatical genders at all. Old English in fact, had grammatical genders, but modern English is considered to have none other than the use of the pronouns he and she to differentiate between male and female persons and animals (although the English language also employs the gender-neutral pronoun, it that can be used for inanimate objects and animals).

And although the English language doesn’t assign a gender to every noun as does the Romantic languages for example, English does have a number of nouns that specifically refer to a male or a female.

Some examples from English

Male nouns:

Waiter, Actor, Steward, Emperor, Widower, Hero, Host, Landlord

Female nouns:

Waitress, Actress, Stewardess, Empress, Widow, Heroine, Hostess, Landlady

But the English language is evolving, as languages naturally do. Languages evolve according to the changes in societal norms and values. This is probably most apparent in the titles of certain professions. For instance, you probably no longer refer to the individual who delivers your mail, as a mailman but rather as a letter carrier. If you still use the antiquated title, you should probably work at replacing this in your vocabulary. More on this later.

Individuals who put out fires as a profession are less referred to nowadays as firemen and more often referred to as firefighters. Very seldom do we hear the word, steward or stewardess when referring to those who cater to our comfort and safety when in flight. These gender-centric terms have been more or less replaced with the gender-neutral term, flight attendant. In the world of entertainment, the term actress is now considered somewhat of a faux pas. Today, most actors, whether male or female, prefer to be called, well, actors.

So, why does there seem to be a conscious shift in the English language? Why is there a deliberate goal to replace these gender-centric terms with gender-neutral terms?

Gender equality, that’s why.

If you haven’t noticed, for decades, there has existed a powerful and continuous movement in the United States (and in many parts of the world) to level the playing field for women. And just as we’ve written about in the past, in every single social movement, language comes along for the ride.

In the United States, the Woman’s Movement has seen a lot of firsts:

Of course, this list of firsts started way before the 1960s and is certain to continue well into the future. The point is, despite their many manmade obstacles, women continue to make progress, and the English language, albeit a little slower to the take, reflects this change.

Why words matter

Over the years, there have been studies that looked at occupation titles in English that use a gendered noun or employ a gender-centric suffix such as -ess, and -man. The studies have attempted to understand whether or not these titles influenced how children think, and what the studies revealed might not be so surprising. Children were far more apt to draw a picture of a man, for instance, when they heard or read a word that depicted a profession that ended in the suffix -man, such as “mailman”, but were quick to draw a picture of a woman when they heard or read a word that depicted a profession ending in -ess as in “seamstress.” Based on these studies one could argue that gender-centric professional titles may play a role in how young boys and girls choose a future profession. Language in this case, may in fact psychologically limit our children’s professional choices without their even knowing it.

Language matters. It always has. And when there is a major shift in language usage, it is often related to social climate, scientific discovery, or technological advancement. Since the age of the Internet we have added a great many words to our vocabulary, and the same is true for virtually all major languages. But changing gendered words might be a little trickier and a lot more involved for some languages. Not only do traditional gendered languages associate all nouns with a gender, but the accompanying indefinite and definite articles, associated adjectives, and past-tense verbs are also affected.

Un exemple en français

Male:

Le grand garçon est allé.

Female:

La grande fille est allée.

Shifts toward gender-neutral nouns in traditionally gendered languages

Despite these complications however, some gendered languages are also beginning to shift toward gender equality. Traditional Spanish is considered to be a gendered language, associating every noun, whether inanimate or animate, with a gender. But many Spanish-speaking regions are beginning to use creative ways that appeal to a more gender-neutral approach while still preserving the integrity of their language.

Traditionally, a female Spanish-speaking individual from Latin America or from Latin American descent might refer to herself as “Latina”, and a male as, “Latino.” Some people however, are now starting to write these gendered nouns as “Latin@.” In Spanish, the “at” symbol (@) is called an arroba, and since it looks like it is made up of both the letter “a” and the letter “o”, this seems to be at least for some, a perfect solution to this problem. Other Spanish-speaking individuals of Latin American descent prefer instead, to replace “Latina” and “Latino” with “Latinx.” Although a minor change, this is a fascinating shift in thinking just the same. At least to a certain degree, this might suggest that some people belonging to the Latin American culture are beginning to consider how their gendered language affects how they think and feel.

Believe it or not, since the late 1970s, there have been attempts in French-speaking Canada to make changes in the titles of professions in an effort to be more gender inclusive. In the early 1990s, Switzerland and Belgium followed suit. However, the Académie Française, known as the gatekeeper of the French language, has been vehemently opposed to altering their language for the sake of gender equality. They have actually gone so far as to say this alteration would put the language in peril. However, recent polls suggest that the vast majority of French citizens are not opposed to this change, and in fact might welcome it. Referred to as “inclusive French”, these changes can take on a few different forms:

Adding feminine words

Some propose creating feminine versions of professional terms that traditionally don’t exist.

Median-period

Some prefer the “median-period’ approach, such as < musicien-ne-s>.

Gender-neutral

And some argue that the simple use of a gender-neutral pronoun (much like the modern English-language use of “they”) would suffice.

Within the past year, there has even been a ‘French inclusive’ textbook released to 3rd graders much to the upset of those opposed to this movement. In 2016, Microsoft released a version of its platform that offers inclusive French, and a new French keyboard is being designed to include the median-period approach.

No matter how hard the forces act against it, the winds of change usually win in the end.

Do gendered languages widen the gender gap?

Culture, history, religion, traditional patriarchal societies, and many more factors all contribute to gender equality issues, but language cannot be ruled out as a possible contributing factor.

To see whether or not a pattern would emerge among gendered languages in relation to the global gender gap, we compiled a list of the world’s richest countries, along with their respective languages, and then consulted the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report to see how these languages stacked up. We then took a look at the richest countries in the Americas and Western Europe to see how they ranked in terms of gender equality.

Study 1: 10 Richest countries worldwide

Country Most spoken language Gendered or non-gendered Global Gender Gap Rank
Norway Norwegian Non-gendered 2
Ireland English Non-gendered 8
Luxembourg French Gendered 59
Singapore English Non-gendered 65
Brunei Malay Non-gendered 102
UAE Arabic Gendered 120
Kuwait Arabic Gendered 129
Qatar Arabic Gendered 130
San Marino Italian Gendered N/A
Macao Cantonese Non-gendered N/A
Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!
Notes:
  • Although Portuguese is also spoken here, the vast majority of residents of Macao speak Cantonese
  • Even though many languages are spoken in Singapore, English has become the main working language
  • Macao is not listed as one of the 144 countries ranked but Open Edition estimated that in 2002, women only made 70 percent of a male’s salary for the same job.
  • Although San Marino is not listed as one of the 144 countries ranked, DATA USA estimates that the average male salary is USD 76,621, while the average female salary is USD 59,773, representing a gap just short of 22 percent. This is comparable to the gender pay gap of the United States.
Out of the top 10 richest countries in the world, half are countries whose languages are gendered, and the other half represent non-gendered languages. 80 percent of the top 5 countries not only represent the narrowest gender gap but also represent non-gendered languages, while the three countries with the widest gender gaps represent gendered languages.

Study #2: 10 richest countries in the Americas and Western Europe

Country Most spoken language Gendered or non-gendered Global Gender Gap Rank
Iceland Icelandic Non-gendered 1
Norway Norwegian Non-gendered 2
Sweden Swedish Non-gendered 5
Ireland English Non-gendered 8
Germany German Gendered with neutral pronoun 12
Switzerland German Gendered with neutral pronoun 21
Netherlands Dutch Common and neutral 32
Australia English Non-gendered 35
USA English Non-gendered 49
Luxemburg French Gendered 59
Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!
Notes:
  • Although Switzerland recognizes German, French, Italian, and Romansh as national languages, 63 percent of its residents are native German speakers. It is worth mentioning however, that all other languages here are also gendered-languages.

60 percent of the richest western countries predominantly speak non-gendered languages. If we also include gendered languages that incorporate a neutral pronoun, this percentage increases to 90 percent. This same 90 percent also represents the most narrow gender gap. Only one out of the 10 richest western countries represents a true gendered language, and this country happens to rank last on this list in terms of the global gender gap.

What does this all mean?

Neither our analyses nor the Global Gender Gap Report can exclusively determine whether or not language affects gender equality, but our shared findings do generate thought and should generate continued discussion.

Again, there are many forces at play that all have an impact on gender equality. What we are merely suggesting is that perhaps languages are one of those forces at play, and that maybe – just maybe – gendered languages do in fact, have an impact on what we think and how we feel. In terms of gender equality, perhaps gendered languages have a role in shaping how young girls and women perceive their educational, economic, and professional opportunities, and how they perceive their political position on the world stage.

Just food for thought… Thanks for reading.

 

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