Gendered language is one of the determining switch points on the track towards gender equality

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!”

The first time that I was confronted with this riddle was in one of the first-year lectures of my psychology studies. Not thinking about it for long, I came up with a reasonable explanation of the surgeon being the second father in a homosexual relationship. I remember feeling oh so progressive, not letting this riddle trick me … until the professor resolved it, revealing that the surgeon is in fact the mother.

I tried to actively counteract my intuitive judgment but was trapped in the male bias.

I was shocked. I would have considered myself to be open-minded and rather feminist in my conceptions and yet, androcentrism got the best of me. For the next couple of weeks, I noticed myself reading papers with only the researcher’s last name given most of the time, and then being unsatisfactorily surprised when I read that their first name was female. I tried to actively counteract my intuitive judgment but was trapped in the male bias. How can this still be the case in a world that has undergone multiple feminist revolutions and is generally considered egalitarian? Of course, it is widely acknowledged that society is not rid of sexism, and terms such as the gender pay gap or the male gaze in film production are popular in feminist discussions. But what role does the English language play in this complexity of the maintenance of gender discrimination?

English is a natural gender language, which could be considered advantageous for the promotion of gender equality.

English is a natural gender language in which only pronouns like he and she distinguish gender, and gender is not explicitly assigned to nouns as it is the case in grammatical gender languages, like German or French (Prewitt-Freilino et al., 2011). This could be considered advantageous for the promotion of gender equality as it is generally higher in countries with natural gender language. Why, then, did I still think of a male surgeon and male researchers, when no explicit gender is assigned in the English language? Since no linguistic cues were given, it is likely that I suffer (allowing myself to be a bit dramatic here) from an androcentric worldview.

Androcentrism is the inclination to view masculinity as the norm, typically representing humanity (Lindqvist et al., 2018). This goes hand in hand with a phenomenon called male bias, which describes the unconscious comprehension of gender-neutral words as masculine due to their grammatical or semantical associations with men (Stahlberg et al. 2007; Lindqvist et al., 2018). Following this reasoning, I must have an implicit representation in my mind of surgeons and researchers as masculine. An investigation of the societal causes of this misshapen image would truly be too much for this post, so I will leave it at that and rather look at possibilities for linguistic damage repair.

I aim to emphasize the importance of language as one of the determining switch points on the track toward gender equality.

As of now, three options are available to make language more gender-fair. First, we could employ paired forms in contexts that are already gendered, for example talking about him/her and a chairman/-woman (Gabriel et al., 2018). This eliminates male bias however also highlights a binary gender system (Lindqvist et al., 2018). Second, as a challenge to binary categorization, we could use the gender-neutral word “they”. This neutralization makes gender as a category less salient but does not completely abolish male bias. Due to its historical usage as a generic third-person pronoun, “they” potentially still elicits androcentric heuristics (Lindqvist et al., 2018). Our third option is the utilization of an actively created gender-neutral pronoun which, in the English language, is “ze”. This word is missing historical or culturally shaped biases and demonstrates a clean start to gender-fair language.

Now I know that the use of paired forms is often viewed as cumbersome and a sudden introduction of “ze” is labeled as absurd. To some extent, I agree with this critique and admittedly prefer using “they” to “ze” when writing papers. But this post is not about convincing you to employ one of the three alternatives from now on. Rather, I aim to emphasize the importance of language as one of the determining switch points on the track toward gender equality and want to encourage you to get involved. Help set the switch point and induce a linguistic shift through feminization and neutralization. Form your own opinions and be open to change.



Gabriel, U., Gygax, P. M., & Kuhn, E. A. (2018). Neutralising linguistic sexism: Promising but cumbersome? Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(5), 844-858.

Lindqvist, A., Renström, E. A., & Gustafsson Sendén, M. (2018). Reducing a male bias in language? Establishing the efficiency of three different gender-fair language strategies. Sex Roles, 81(1-2), 109-117.

Prewitt-Freilino, J. L., Caswell, T. A., & Laakso, E. K. (2011). The gendering of language: A comparison of gender equality in countries with gendered, natural gender, and genderless languages. Sex Roles, 66(3-4), 268-281.

Stahlberg, D., Braun, F., Irmen, L., & Sczesny, S. (2007). Representation of the Sexes in Language. In K. Fiedler (Ed.), Social communication. (pp. 163–187). Psychology Press.


Picture credits

Featured Image from Flickr by Brick Resort; licensed by: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Third-year BSc Psychology student

Tamara Lühr is a third-year BSc Psychology student at the University of Groningen. With a passion for research, she is part of the Bachelor’s Honours Programme and has been involved in research projects concerning soundscapes and music cognition. Alongside psychology, she is interested in environmental sciences and the promotion of sustainability through the Green Office at the university. Besides that, she is actively following and contributing to the discussion of gender equality.

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