Do gendered languages fail women in math?

No matter how you say it there’s a lot to be said for equality⎮ 2 min read
Published in Neuroscience
Do gendered languages fail women in math?

There are hundreds of languages spoken around the world, many of which vary by whether speakers are required to mark gender grammatically. In gendered languages like French, Spanish, German, and Hebrew, parts of speech – pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and/or verbs – have feminine and masculine forms. These forms of speech that refer to one gender only, are used more frequently in gendered languages than in gender-neutral languages.

Previous research suggests that gendered languages are associated with gender inequality. Studies have shown the countries where gendered languages are spoken tend to be associated with greater gender inequality in labor, credit, board membership, division of household labor and education than countries whose languages feature gender-neutral grammatical systems. With this context in mind, we decided to focus our project on mathematical achievements of women and men (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Gender Gap in Mathematics by Country and Type of Language Boys-Girls (PISA, 2015).

In our research paper, Do gendered languages fail women in math? published by npj Science of Learning, we asked whether gendered languages generated gender gaps in mathematics achievements or are merely correlated with them. We provided evidence for causality, by exploiting the prominent (but not exclusive) practice in gendered languages of using masculine generics to address women. Using a large representative sample of Hebrew-speaking adults in Israel, we showed that addressing women in the masculine, compared to the feminine, negatively affected their performance in math. In fact, when women are addressed in the feminine and men in the masculine, the gender gap in mathematics achievement is reduced by a third, compared to when both women and men are addressed in the masculine (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Mean Scores in Math, by Gendered Address.

These effects are strongest among participants who learned the Hebrew language early in childhood rather than later in life. This finding suggests that it is the extent of language proficiency that generates one's sensitivity to being addressed in the masculine or in the feminine. When women are addressed in the masculine, their efforts (in terms of time spent on math tests) decreased (Figure 3) and they reported feeling more that ‘science is for men’ compared to when they are addressed in the feminine form. Finally, we supplemented the analysis with two experiments that explored the roles of task-specific and general sex stereotypes in generating these effects.

Figure 3: Mean Time Invested in the Math Test, by Gendered Address.

Our paper makes two contributions: First, we provide experimental evidence for the powerful role of language in affecting people's performance. Second, our findings suggest that stereotypes and cultural beliefs about sex are so deeply embedded in languages that they unconsciously impact people’s beliefs, efforts and performance in ways that reinforce gender inequality and thus further legitimize and sustain gender inequality.

Naturally, modifying the form of address in exams, and even in classrooms, would not eliminate altogether gender gaps in math and reading comprehension performance. Gender inequality is persistent and over-determined: it is consistently and simultaneously generated and maintained in multiple spheres of life and spanning different levels of analysis. Yet, tackling such inequality within each realm or level of analysis is important in generating the possibility for change.

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