Languages vary in whether and how they encode and mark gender. Some languages, such as Spanish, French, and Hebrew, employ grammatical gender, assigning specific genders to nouns and using gendered pronouns. Even in more gender-neutral languages like English, Danish, and Swedish, where most nouns are gender-neutral, personal pronouns remain gendered (e.g. “she”, “her”, “hers”, “he”, “him”, “his”). For instance, in English, the sentence “the researcher performed her experiment in the lab” explicitly indicates the gender of the researcher.
The policy stakes
Policymakers concerned about gender disparities and gender inequalities have been increasingly introducing policies in favour of gender-neutral language. For example, in 2021, the US House of Representatives adopted rules requiring the use of gender-neutral language in House communications. Several US states now mandate the use of gender-neutral language in all official documents and forms. In 1987, the United Nations adopted guidelines to promote gender-neutral language in its official documents and communications, which were revised and expanded in 2021 to promote gender inclusion as well. In contrast, after adopting similar rules in 2015, the French government reversed them in 2022, taking the position that the masculine is a neutral form to be used in official documents for terms applicable to all genders. (For Vox columns on policies regarding gendered language, see Del Carpio and Fujiwara 2023, Hicks et al. 2016, Özak et al. 2019, and Santacreu-Vasut et al. 2012.)
One arena in which policy recommendations have been made is in educational settings. In the US, the Educational Testing Service, which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (a standardised test widely used for college admissions), considered mandating the use of gender-neutral language in examinations but decided not to do so (Educational Testing Service 2022). We contribute to this policy debate by providing evidence for the positive effect of using more gender-neutral language on the performance of women in high-stakes standardised exams.
Existing evidence and mechanism
Studies have shown that linguistic features of languages can shape perceptions and behaviours (Ayres et al. 2023, Chen 2013, Galor et al. 2020, Mavisakalyan et al. 2018, Ladd et al. 2015). In the context of gender inequality, it was shown that more gendered languages (e.g. Hebrew, Spanish, and French) tend to be associated with greater gender inequality and the expression of more gender stereotypes, compared to less gendered languages (e.g. English, Swedish, and Dutch) (Gay et al. 2013, Prewitt-Freilino et al. 2012, Shoham and Lee 2018). Even within a language, experimental studies have demonstrated that using a more gender-neutral language positively affects women’s attitudes, motivations, and performance in math (Wasserman and Weseley 2009, Vainapel et al. 2015, Kricheli-Katz and Regev 2021a, b).
One reason using gendered language might affect people’s attitudes and behaviours relates to the significant cultural and social role gender plays in organising our society. When the language used in an interaction is structured around gender categories, gendered distinctions are salient, as are the stereotypes associated with these distinctions. Using a gendered language ‘reminds’ speakers of the gendered categories and stereotypes, and they, therefore, tend to behave accordingly. Indeed, research has shown that gender stereotypes tend to affect people’s behaviour. For example, when women are reminded of the stereotype that men do better in math (or even simply reminded that they are women), they tend to perform worse in math-related tasks.
The natural experiment
Our study complements the existing literature on the effects of gendered language on behaviour by using real-world data from thousands of test-takers before and after a policy change in the Israeli standardised college entrance exams, known as the Psychometric Entrance Test, which introduced gender-neutral language to exams taken in Hebrew.
Hebrew has grammatical gender, where nouns carry assigned genders, influencing the corresponding verb and pronoun forms. Importantly, in Hebrew, verbs are also gendered, meaning that their forms differ depending on whether the subject is perceived to be a man or a woman.
In December 2009, Israel’s National Institute of Testing and Evaluation changed the form of address used in the Psychometric Entrance Test from the singular masculine to the plural masculine, which is considered a more gender-neutral form. This policy change offers a natural experiment that allows us to compare test-takers’ performance in a real-life setting before and after the implementation of the new form of address.
To account for potential confounding factors, we focus on identical sections administered before and after the change, where the content of the questions remains unchanged and only the forms of address differ. By concentrating on these sections, we can conduct a comparative analysis of test-takers’ performance on identical questions before and after the policy change. The change affected some questions while leaving others unaffected. Using this distinction, we compare the differences in performance between the questions that were and were not affected, effectively controlling for additional confounding effects that may have arisen over time.
We obtained data on first-time test-takers who took the exam between 2000 and 2012. Our analysis exclusively considers sections that were administered both before and after the change in form of address, where the sole difference was the form of address. The dataset comprises 9 quantitative sections and 24 verbal sections. Our sample encompasses approximately 2.5 million questions taken by about 150,000 distinct test-takers.
Our findings indicate that the transition to a more gender-neutral language had a positive impact on the performance of women in quantitative questions, where they are stereotypically perceived to underperform, without adversely affecting the performance of men. Additionally, we observed that the transition did not have any adverse effects on the performance of women in verbal questions, where they are not stereotypically perceived to underperform.
Our findings carry considerable policy implications, and we envision them being instrumental in guiding the decisions of policymakers and organisations, particularly within the educational context.
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