Language Influences Public Attitudes toward Gender Equality

People speaking genderless languages, (i.e. languages without references to objects as male or female), may exhibit more egalitarian views about women's roles in politics and society.


In many nations, women are underrepresented in decision-making positions in politics and beyond. Prior research suggests that patriarchal beliefs may promote and maintain this and other gender gaps but does not fully account for how such attitudes originate and persist.

Cognitive psychologists, suggesting one potential factor, have shown that language reliably affects human thinking. If language informs how people think, then variations in the use of gender in language, such as referring to objects as male or female, might account for parallel differences in attitudes about gender equality. (For example, in Spanish, the moon is marked as feminine by the definite article la, as in la luna.)

In this study, the authors examined whether speakers of genderless languages held more egalitarian views about women's roles in politics and society than speakers of gendered languages. To do so, they randomly assigned bilingual Estonians to be interviewed in either Estonian, a genderless language, or Russian, a gendered language, and compared each group's responses to questions about gender stereotypes, policies advancing gender equality, and female political representation.


In the first study, interviewing in a genderless language affected participants' attitudes toward gender equality. Participants who interviewed in Estonian expressed more liberalized views toward gender equality than those who interviewed in Russian.

  • Estonian-language participants were less likely to perceive women as more stereotypically emotional than men (1.14 versus 1.34 mean value on a scale ranging from -6 to 6, with positive values indicating greater belief in women as emotional).
  • Estonian-language participants were more likely to support a proposed paternity leave policy (43% versus 35% of participants).
  • Estonian-language participants were more likely to support a hypothetical female candidate for defense minister (73% versus 66% of participants)
  • Estonian-language participants were more likely to agree with increasing the profile of women in political leadership positions (28% versus 23% of participants).

In the second study, the effects of genderless versus gendered language were limited to measures that clearly evoked gender. Participants interviewed in Estonian did not have reliably different views on suicide from participants who interviewed in Russian.

  • The effects of genderless versus gendered language were weaker when social norms were emphasized.
  • When normative information about a proposal to advance gender equality was absent, Estonian-language participants were reliably more supportive of the proposal than Russian-language participants.
  • When such information was present, the difference between the two groups decreased.

The effects of genderless versus gendered language extend beyond Estonia, throughout the different nations and cultural contexts captured in responses to the World Values Survey (WVS).

  • Individuals who reported speaking a genderless language at home were more likely to express gender-equal attitudes.

These findings emphasize the role of language in constructing political realities and suggest that gender-neutral language may be an avenue for advancing views on gender equality. They might be applied to increase female political representation in gendered-language contexts, where people have a heightened awareness of gender differences, through policies that highlight women's unique perceived strengths, as well as in genderless-language contexts through efforts that emphasize women's parity with men.


In Study 1, 1,200 bilingual Estonians were randomly assigned to be interviewed in either Estonian, a genderless language, or Russian, a gendered language. They were asked questions measuring their attitudes toward gender stereotypes, policies intended to advance gender equality, and female political representation and leadership. Interviews were conducted in May and June of 2014.

Study 2 replicated Study 1 with a smaller cohort of 262 participants. It incorporated two new elements: 1) a placebo question measuring attitudes toward suicide, not gender, and 2) a question-wording manipulation testing the impact of norms, measured by the percentage of Estonians who would be in favor of a proposed action to advance gender equality. Interviews were conducted in March and April of 2016.

Study 3 extended the research beyond Estonia through a cross-national analysis based on data from the WVS, which included 90 countries and up to 170,000 individuals. It assessed whether respondents spoke a genderless or gendered language based on the language they reported speaking at home and data from the World Atlas of Language Structures and compared responses to biased statements about women's role in the workforce, as political leaders, as university students, and as business executives across the two groups. The WVS data spanned the years 1995 to 2014.

Estonia was selected as a study location due to its sizable population of people that are equally proficient in a genderless (Estonian) and gendered (Russian) language, as well as prior research showing that Estonians and Russians share many political opinions and values.

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