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Pledge to Reduce Sexist Language

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"Every man believes himself just."

The above is an example of the masculine generic: here, "man" denotes "person," and "himself" works similarly to "oneself." But... do they really?

What came to mind when you read the sentence? Perhaps an ancient Greek philosopher, or a heroic knight of the Middle Ages, or a conniving 18th-century autocrat. Regardless of the details, odds are that one thing is certain about the image: the person is a man. In fact, a 1990 study found that the gender-neutral use of the pronoun "he" results in far more male mental images than that of "he/she" or "they." The masculine generic's suffixes also present an inherent bias. A 1995 study found that descriptions of people– regardless of whether or not their gender is known– using terms suffixed with "-man" give impressions of more masculine personalities than descriptions that use alternatives. For example, a story detailing the actions of "Chairman Simmons" influenced subjects to describe Simmons as possessing more stereotypically masculine traits than did the same story about "Chair Simmons" or "Chairperson Simmons." In the cases both of pronouns and of suffixes, one can see that the masculine generic disproportionately connotes men and masculinity, regardless of whether or not this is the intended denotation.

Not only is the masculine generic not generic, but it is dangerous. A 2011 study found that gender-exclusive language (as compared to gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language) in job descriptions or interviews results in decreases in woman participants' identification with the job, sense of belonging, and motivation to pursue the job. The negative effects of the masculine generic can even be seen in children: a 1984 study found that children are less likely to view women as capable of performing a job if "he" is used to describe a worker than if "he/she" or "they" is. By creating environments of exclusion and beliefs of gender-affected ability, the masculine generic acts as a barrier to gender equality.

The masculine generic is not generic, and it is harmful. Its use results in biased perceptions and acts as a barrier to gender equality.

What can you do? There is a simple action that you can take to help take on this problem: reduce your use of sexist language, no matter by how little. From time to time, use "person" over "man", or "chair" over "chairman," or "they" over "he." No matter by how little, make the pledge to reduce your use of sexist language, and know in doing so that you are helping to reduce bias and move the world toward gender equality.




Studies in order mentioned:

Gastil, John. "Generic Pronouns and Sexist Language: The Oxymoronic Character of Masculine Generics." Sex Roles, PDF ed., vol. 23, 12 11 1990, pp. 629-43.

McConnell, Allen R., and Russell H. Fazio. "Women as Men and People: Effects of Gender-Marked Language." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, PDF ed., pp. 1004-13.

Stout, Jane G., and Nilanjana Dasgupta. "When He Doesn’t Mean You: Gender-Exclusive Language as Ostracism" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, PDF ed., 2011, pp. 757-69.

Hyde, Janet S. "Children's understanding of sexist language." Developmental Psychology, digital ed., vol. 20, no. 4, July 1984, pp. 697-706.


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