Gender Bias in English: In Search of Fair Language


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    Prior to the 15th century, the usage in English was different. The word “man” was used to describe a human being of either sex. “Wif” was the word used for an adult female and “wer” decribed an adult male (Miller & Swift, 1976).


Women's historical lack of prominence in Western culture has been the subject of much research and debate in recent years. One area of partiuclar concern has been language: the grammatical prescription of masculine words as generic to describe both men and women. In the service of equality between the sexes, it is crucial to demonstrate that “generic” masculine words are indeed interpreted as generic (equally inclusive of women and men) by language users. The research reported here manipulated gender neutrality of language descriptors to determine whether generic masculine nouns, pronouns, and possessive pronominal adjectives function more similarly to gender specific terms or neuter terms. The relative masculinity of responses to these terms was assessed within three different tasks (draw a picture, read an essay, and provide example names). In addition, the relative masculinity/femininity of 10 terms with various intended gender references was empirically assessed. Participants rated each of them using 14 adjectives taken from the Bern Sex Role Inventory. Results support and extend previous research by showing (1) that “generic” masculine nouns, pronouns, and adjectives function similarly to gender specific masculine terms and (2) that certain grammatically “neutral” terms are in fact rated as relatively masculine. This evidence demonstrates that the use of “generic” masculine and even other grammatically neutral terms in effect serves to exclude women from the English language. The resulting masculine bias in our language reflects and reinforces the pattern of male dominance in society.