He, she, or … ? Gender-neutral pronouns reduce biases study

Researchers find usage boosts positive feelings towards women and LGBT people

More than 100 failures litter the battleground that is the hunt for an English gender-neutral singular pronoun. From thon, ip and hiser to hem, ons and lers, the discarded terms have piled up since the mid-19th century.

But the quest for the right word is not in vain, a new study suggests. Using a gender-neutral pronoun, it found, reduces mental biases that favour men, and boosts positive feelings towards women and LGBT people.

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The finding marks an easy win, the researchers believe, and shows how a minor change in language can help chip away at long-standing gender inequities.

Lets assume there are societies that generally agree on being more inclusive of women and LGBT individuals, and there are more than a few, said Efrn Prez at the University of California in Los Angeles. Our findings suggest that the words we choose to use can matter in getting us a little bit closer toward reaching that ideal.

Prez and Margit Tavits at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, explored the impact of gender-neutral pronouns on the views of more than 3,000 Swedes. In 2015, the country adopted the gender-neutral term hen to sit alongside the existing terms hon and han, the English equivalents of she and he.

Before the study began in earnest, those taking part were handed a cartoon of an androgynous figure walking a dog. They were then randomly split into three groups and asked to write down what was happening in the picture. One group was told to use only neutral pronouns, another only female pronouns, and the third only male pronouns.

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The researchers then asked the volunteers to complete a short story about a person, given no name or gender, running for political office. Next they answered questions that examined their views on women and LGBT people.

According to the report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, those who used gender-neutral pronouns for the cartoon task were more likely to use non-male names in their short story. The gender-neutral pronoun also appeared to improve positive feelings towards LGBT people. The word hen, the researchers believe, helped to combat mental biases that favoured men, and raise awareness of other genders.

Sabine Sczesny, a professor of social psychology at the University of Bern, said the research was further evidence that gender-inclusive language could reduce gender-biases and contribute to the promotion of gender and LGBT equality and tolerance.

Laura Russell, director of research, policy and campaigns at Stonewall said: The language we use is important, especially when it comes to describing or referencing someones identity.

This study adds to the evidence showing that when we use language that actively includes women and LGBT people, it makes a real difference in reducing gender stereotyping. Using gender-neutral language is a positive step towards creating a world where everyone is accepted without exception.

In English, the word they is used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. And while some grammarians claim it is unacceptable, such usage has a long history. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, they appears in singular form as far back as 1375 in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.

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From at least the mid-nineteenth century onwards, new coinages have attempted to provide English with a grammatically uncontroversial gender-neutral singular pronoun and related adjectives, said Jonathan Dent, senior assistant editor at the OED. American writers of the 1860s and 1870s gave us (s)he or s/he and ze, while hir, first suggested in the form hier in 1910, was embraced by the Californian Sacramento Bee newspaper, which used it as an alternative to him or her and his or her between 1920 and the late 1940s.

In recent years, growing recognition of non-binary gender identities has made use of he or she seem increasingly exclusionary in many contexts, and they, ze and zir, and hir have all been used with reference back to a single, named individual, and chosen by some people as their preferred pronouns, he added.

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