What does ‘he’ mean?

By Agnieszka Szuba

Even though Neil Armstrong declared his first step on the moon “a giant leap for mankind”, we can safely assume that he believed it was a significant event for all humans, not just the male ones. Grammatically masculine forms such as the man in ‘mankind’ or the his in “to each his own” are widely used across languages, and everyone understands that they can refer to people of all genders. Or do they? Research has shown that although people do understand the gender-inclusive intention behind the use of masculine generics, such forms nevertheless bias them towards thinking of men. This article offers a review of that research, with a special focus on current research being done on Dutch. As it can be difficult to find a solution to avoiding masculine generics, the article also offers some alternatives to their use.


What are masculine generics?

Languages differ in the extent to which they mark gender. Gender can be marked grammatically on nouns – this is the case in German (a female student is a Studentin but a male student is a Student), and, to an extent, in Dutch (studente vs. student). Gender can be marked on pronouns, such as in the distinction between he and she in English. Other languages, such as Turkish and Finnish, are largely genderless, and the only way to mark gender in those languages is by using words such as male or female.

Masculine generics exist in all types of languages. Grammatically masculine noun forms, such as the German Student, can be used to refer to a student of unknown gender or, in the plural form, to a group of male and female students. Pronouns like the Dutch hij (‘he’) and zijn (‘his’) are also commonly used in generic statements about people. And words like man can be used to mean human, or exist as suffixes in profession names like policeman.

Does language reflect gender biases?

When the research area of language and gender emerged in the 1970s, many feminist linguists began to bring to attention how biases towards women are reflected in language. While the existence of masculine generics is likely to be one of the reflections of historical bias against women, it is unclear whether they contribute to gender inequality today, for example by making women feel excluded or by maintaining the assumption of male-as-default.

Opinions on this issue are divided, with some thinking that the grammatical details of language are of little importance when it comes to affecting the status of women in society. Others believe that language is powerful in shaping our reality. Experimental research mostly supports the latter point of view; while we are not sure exactly how meaningful the effect is in real-life terms, there is evidence that masculine generics are not interpreted entirely neutrally. Instead, reading a text that uses masculine generics makes people more likely to think of the people described in the text as male, compared with texts in which gender-inclusive forms are used.

thought of men

What mental images do masculine generics evoke?

The evidence of the biasing effect of masculine generics comes from research on multiple European languages. Between the 1970s and ‘90s, a number of experiments were conducted on the English masculine generic pronouns he, his and him. The effect of the pronouns was always compared to gender-inclusive phrasing (he or she) and to the gender-neutral pronoun they. The researchers Moulton, Robinson, and Elias in 1978, as well as Switzer roughly ten years later, presented participants with written scenarios such as: “In a large coeducational institution the average student will feel isolated in his introductory courses”. The participants were then asked to write a short story based on the scenario. Both studies found that the people who read the version of the sentence containing generic his wrote more stories featuring male characters than the participants who saw versions of the story containing other pronouns. Other researchers found in the 1990s that when people were asked to describe the images that came to their mind after reading sentences or listening to a short story, the participants who had read or heard versions with masculine generics reported more male imagery. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that another study, which was published in 1983, failed to find an effect of the type of pronoun used.

Pronouns have not really been studied in other languages, but there have been a number of studies on masculine generic role nouns (e.g. “teacher”) in languages with grammatical gender. A biasing effect of the masculine generic forms has been found using various methods, and across several languages such as German, French, Polish, and Russian. In one study for instance, people were asked to name several examples of people belonging to a certain category (e.g. athletes, musicians, etc.). As expected, the participants listed more male exemplars when the category was introduced using the masculine form of the noun.

Masculine generics in Dutch

Despite masculine generics being common in Dutch, there has been hardly any research on them. However, last September Theresa Redl has started her PhD project at Radboud University during which she investigates exactly this subject. For her Master’s thesis, Theresa has already conducted one experiment aimed at measuring how Dutch speakers interpret masculine generics. In a reading experiment, she presented participants with two sentence pairs, such as:

“Iedereen was zijn veters aan het strikken. Zo was ook Linda zich aan het klaarmaken om naar buiten te gaan.”

(“Everyone was tying his shoelaces. Linda was also getting ready to go out.”)

Crucially, in some of the sentences the name of the protagonist was female, such as Linda, and in others the name was male, such as David. If the pronoun zijn in the first sentence biased the participants towards thinking of men, the unexpected female name would be read slower than a male name. After analyzing the results, however, Theresa only found weak evidence to support this hypothesis.

Theresa offered several possible explanations for why she did not find a strong biasing effect of the use of the generic zijn. First of all, zijn is a unique pronoun in that it sounds very similar to the female or (neutral) plural pronoun zij, meaning ‘she’ or ‘they’. Previous research has found that when people read a word, other words that sound or look similar are also activated in the brain. If the word zij was activated while reading zijn, it is possible that it also made people think of women.

Another possibility is that masculine generics do not always make people think of men, but that this effect depends on the context in which they are encountered. One aspect of the context could be whether the generic refers to a group of people, as in the first sentence above about everybody tying their shoelaces, or whether it refers to an individual, such as in the sentence below.

“Iemand met een klein kind moet zijn slaapritme vaak aanpassen.”

(“Someone with a small child often has to adjust his sleep pattern”)

Some researchers argue that mental images of individuals are more concrete and specific than those of groups. Therefore, one possibility is that the grammatical gender of the generic plays a more important role when people are forming a mental image of an individual than of a group. As part of my internship, I am helping Theresa to design an experiment that will test whether the generic zijn is interpreted in reference to an individual.

Alternatives

If we want to stop using masculine generics, often there is more than one way to rephrase what we say. What can the available research tell us about the possible alternatives? And which one is more effective?

There are two main strategies for replacing masculine generics: feminization and neutralization. Feminization involves explicitly specifying both men and women – forms like he or she, or Studenten und Studentinnen. Neutralization takes place when a genderless form is used in place of a gendered one – in pronouns like singular they, as in “someone forgot their jacket”, or gender-neutral nouns like police officer. Both feminized and neutralized forms have their pros and cons. First, though, it must be said that we are not always completely free to choose whichever form we want, as our choice is often limited by the structure of a particular language. In languages with masculine and feminine grammatical gender, for example, it can be difficult to create gender-neutral noun forms.

andrew_policewoman

An advantage of feminization is that it increases women’s visibility. In most of the studies on English pronouns, participants had thought up more female imagery when the feminized form he or she was used than when the neutralized form they was used. However, visibility can be a double-edged sword. As Dédé Brouwer said in 1991 when arguing in favor of gender-neutral noun forms in Dutch, “differentiation leads to discrimination”.

This can be illustrated by the findings of a study conducted in 2015. Researchers then found that primary school children evaluated traditionally masculine jobs as more difficult when they were described using the masculine generic form as opposed to the feminized form. On the one hand, this is a positive finding because it shows that using a feminized form can make girls perceive traditionally masculine jobs as more accessible to them. However, the fact that both girls and boys thought the jobs were easier when the feminized form was used, indicates that something else is going on. Why would boys, whose gender is included in both versions of the job title, think of the profession as easier when the feminine form is added? Perhaps this phenomenon is related to the subconscious perception that women are less capable of performing “difficult” (read: male-dominated) jobs. When we see that a woman can do such a job, suddenly it does not seem so difficult anymore. This would parallel the real-life finding that as more women enter a traditionally male-dominated field, its status and pay decrease, as has been demonstrated in a 2009 study.

Of course, such effects are not caused by feminized forms, but are rather reflective of a larger problem of how society views women. Because increasing female visibility can be advantageous in some contexts but not in others, we cannot say that either feminizing or neutralizing forms are inherently better. However, there is one strong argument in favor of neutralizing forms: they include people of all gender identities, and not just the ones who fall on either side of the binary. The pronoun they in English is already adopted by many transgender people who do not want to be referred to as either he or she.

Conclusion

Based on the findings of the studies, we can conclude that masculine generics are likely to bias our mental imagery to include men more often than women. However, our mental imagery is probably also influenced by other factors which can weaken or strengthen the influence of masculine generics. Also, it is likely that masculine generics are not interpreted in the same way across all languages, since only a subset of languages has been studied. Nevertheless, a male bias of masculine generics has been found across contexts, languages, and for different types of generics. This should make us cautious about using them, as apparently masculine generics are not so generic after all –we should be careful about what ‘he’ really means.

Agnieszka Szuba is a Research Master student in Language and Communication. She is interested in how language can reflect our implicit biases, as well as how it can shape the way we think. She is doing her research internship on masculine generics in the Grammar and Cognition research group at the Centre for Language Studies. For more information, she can be contacted at a.szuba@student.ru.nl


References

Gygax, P., & Gabriel, U. (2008). Can a group of musicians be composed of women? Generic interpretation of French masculine role names in the absence and presence of feminine forms. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 67(3), 143–151.

Moulton, J., Robinson, G. M., & Elias, C. (1978). Sex bias in language: “Neutral” pronouns that aren’t. American Psychologist, 33(11), 1032-1036.

Redl, T. (2016). To each their own: Investigating the Dutch masculine generic zijn ‘his’ across stereotype contexts (Unpublished master’s thesis). Utrecht University.

Stahlberg, D., Sczesny, S., & Braun, F. (2001). Name your favorite musician: Effects of masculine generics and of their alternatives in German. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 20(4), 464–469.

Vervecken, D., & Hannover, B. (2015). Yes I can! Effects of gender fair job descriptions on children’s perceptions of job status, job difficulty, and vocational self-efficacy. Social Psychology, 46(2), 76-92.