When He Doesn’t Mean You: Gender-Exclusive Language as Ostracism
The use of gender-exclusive language (such as using masculine pronouns) can cause women to feel ostracized and less motivated in important professional environments.
Gender-exclusive language – or the use of pronouns that refer to one gender while neglecting the other, even when talking about both men and women – is commonplace in everyday language. For example, the use of himself instead of oneself is specifically gendered. Although this use of gendered pronouns is subtle, it may nonetheless have an adverse effect in certain social situations. In three related studies, this paper examines women’s and men’s responses to the use of gendered language in a professional context. Participants learned about a new job that was described using masculine gender-exclusive terms (he in the generic form to refer to both men and women), gender-inclusive terms (him or her in place of he), and gender-neutral terms (one in place of he). Participants then ranked on a 7-point scale the extent to which they perceived the job description as sexist; their feelings of exclusion versus inclusion in that work environment; motiviation to pursue the job; and identification with the job. Study 1 examined the effect of gender-exclusive language in a written job description, Study 2 extended Study 1 to a face-to-face interaction with a job interviewer, and Study 3 examined the emotional reactions that women felt during the interview.
Although men and women both identify gender-exclusive language to be sexist, women responded with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language.
- In written form (Study 1), both males and females equally ranked gender-exclusive language as being more sexist (assigning it a mean score of 4.74 out of 7) than gender-inclusive language (assigning it a mean score of 3.61 out of 7). Gender-neutral language (the use of one) was seen as the least sexist.
- Overall, similar results ocurred when receiving information orally (Study 2). On average, gender exclusive language was given a mean score of 5.05 out of 7, compared to a mean of 3.45 for gender-inclusive language. Women, however, found the oral language to be more sexist than men. Women scored it as a 5.37 out of 7 in terms of sexism, as compared to the men’s average ranking of 4.57.
- Women expected to feel more ostracized in the work environment and reported less motivation when presented with gender-exclusive language than gender-inclusive language. For example, when recieveing verbal information about the job in Study 2, women expressed a lower sense of belonging when exposed to gender exclusive language (mean score of 4.78 out of 7) when compared to gender inclusive language (mean score of 5.60 out of 7). Men did not differ in their feelings of ostracism as a function of gendered language.
- Women reported less identification with the job after both reading and hearing gender-exclusive language than gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language. For example, in Study 1, women reported less identification with the job after reading gender exclusive language (mean score of 4.9) than gender-inclusive language (mean score of 5.38). Men’s identification with the job did not differ.
- Among women in the gender-exclusion language simulation, their nonverbal emotional reactions became significantly more negative over the course of the interview.
In short, the use of gender-exclusive language ostracizes women and reduces their motivation in professional environments.
In Study 1, 169 (96 women and 73 men) undergraduate participants were asked to read a job description of the work environment and job to which they might apply. One version of the job overview and work environment used masculine references to describe current and prospective employees. The second version included gender-inclusive references (e.g. he or she). Participants then ranked on a 7-point scale the extent to which they perceived the job description as sexist; their feelings of exclusion versus inclusion in that work environment; motiviation to pursue the job; and identification with the job. In Study 2, 250 (151 women and 99 men) undergraduate participants were put in a mock job interview situation wherein a male interviewer used one of three types of language to describe the job and work environment: gender exclusive language, gender-inclusive language, and gender-neutral language (e.g. one). In Study 3, the nonverbal behavior during the mock job interview of 98 female participants was recorded and assessed to determine how these reactions changed over the course of the interview. These nonverbal cues were rated on a scale of 7 to measure positivity and interest in the interaction.