Can grammar be sexist?

There’s a tendency in English to use the pronoun “he” when talking about a generic person. Sexist or merely convenient? Now Pascal Gygax and colleagues have asked a similar question of a grammatical convention in French and German, which is to use the masculine plural form when referring to several people by their role (e.g. footballers, hairdressers), and the gender of that group is either not known, irrelevant or mixed.

Used in this way, the masculine form is not meant to carry any meaning about gender – it’s meant to be generic, but Gygax and colleagues have shown that when confronted with the male plural of a noun, people can’t help but form a representation of men in their mind. The researchers argue this makes the grammatical convention sexist.

The convention has come about because, unlike in English, nouns in French and German have a grammatical gender. So when a group of people – let’s say “spectators” – are being referred to, and they are of unknown gender, or mixed gender, there is a problem over whether to give the masculine (e.g. “spectateurs” in French) or feminine (e.g. “spectatrices“) form of the noun. As we’ve seen, the convention is to use the masculine plural form to indicate that the gender of the group is mixed or not known.

To test whether people really do interpret the masculine plural form of nouns in this way, the researchers tested dozens of participants with many pairs of sentences that took the following form. The first sentence in each pair referred to a group using the masculine plural form of the noun (e.g. “The social workers were walking through the station”), while the second sentence followed up with a reference to some of the men or women in the group (e.g. “Since sunny weather was forecast, several of the women weren’t wearing a coat”).

If the masculine plural form of the noun “social workers” (“assistants sociaux” in French) is correctly interpreted as generic regarding gender, then the second sentence should make perfect sense, and be judged as so just as quickly, whether it refers to men or women. Crucially, however, the French and German participants took longer to say that the second sentence made sense if it referred to women. This was true even if the type of group referred to was stereotypically feminine, such as dress makers or beauticians.

Pointing to the fact that many job adverts still use the masculine plural form of nouns, the researchers concluded: “We believe that our results show that the so-called generic use of the masculine biases gender representations in a way that is discriminatory to women.”

Gygax, P., Gabriel, U., Sarrasin, O., Oakhill, J., Garnham, A. (2008). Generically intended, but specifically interpreted: When beauticians, musicians, and mechanics are all men. Language and Cognitive Processes, 23(3), 464-485. DOI: 10.1080/01690960701702035

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “Can grammar be sexist?”

  1. That’s an interesting finding, and it fits with something I heard when I was in Latin America a few years ago. A school there had wanted to get parents involved, so they had a Parents’ Day (dia de los padres) when parents could come in to find out about what their children were up to in school. But most of the people who came in were fathers (padres is the masculine plural in Spanish). So they changed the name to Families’ Day (dia de las familias), and then more mothers (and other family members) started showing up as well.

  2. Interesting. I found it amusing that “Since sunny weather was forecast, several of the women weren’t wearing a coat” is still grammatically inaccurate, since several women should be wearing (or not wearing) several coats, not just one collectively. Wouldn’t that be a strange sight?

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