People is male

Efforts to shift toward more inclusive language may not be as effective as hoped at removing male bias, scientists say.

In a study in this week’s issue of Science Advances, psychologists and linguists examined 630 billion words of writing from nearly 3 billion web pages to see the degree to which male bias persevered despite the use of inclusive language.

Their conclusion: whatever terms people may use in describing the average human, they are often mentally defaulting to “male.”

The study, says April Bailey, a psychologist at New York University, US, involved a method called computational linguistics, in which researchers look at the way in which word choices connect.

For example, she says, the word “scientist” might be highly correlated with talk of “data” and “analysis”. Similar correlations might occur with the word “researcher”, but the word “smart” might be more strongly associated with “scientist” than with “researcher”, indicating a difference in how people are thinking when they use those two terms.

To test how this applies to supposedly gender-neutral references to humans as a whole, Bailey’s team ran statistical word-association tests on sentences using gender non-specific terms, such as people, person, individual, somebody, or someone, then compared them to sentences using male- or female-specific terms such as man, woman, male, female, etc.

The results were revealing. Whatever people may be trying to do when using gender non-specific terms, Bailey’s team found that these billions of writers talked about “people” and “men” more similarly than about “people” and “women.”

Specifically, her team found, gender-unspecific references were more likely to be associated with stereotypically masculine descriptors such as abusive, candid, forward, outspoken, rational and witty, than with stereotypically female descriptors like accommodating, cheerful, fault-finding, gullible, opinionated, gentle, sympathetic, etc.

So however inclusive these billions of webpage writers might have been trying to be in their use of gender-neutral language, the reality is that when they think “people,” many are still defaulting to “male”.

What we can do about this discovery is complex, because it indicates that sexism isn’t simply something just to be rooted out of our own behavior. “This is not just what individuals think,” Bailey says. “It’s like the air that we breathe. It’s in our culture. I’ve been studying [this] for a long time now. [It’s] subtle. I catch myself doing it even though I’m a woman.”

Next up? Bailey’s study focused on English-language web pages, but didn’t distinguish where they came from. Diving more deeply into that might be useful, especially because some English-speaking countries have been more aggressive about adopting gender neutral terms like “they” and “them” in their language than have others, and the long-standing use of “he” for “he or she” may have left lingering imprints in others.

“That is something we are very interested in investigating in future work,” Bailey says.

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