By Sarah Shair-Rosenfield & Amy H. Liu
On October 14, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled Harvey Weinstein given the mounting accusations of sexual harassment and assault against him. Yet coverage of this ongoing story has only further highlighted the latent sexism even among those who may not explicitly hold such views. Interestingly, the language we use to describe sexual assault and harassment directly – albeit subconsciously – contributes to a gendered worldview. This perspective places women and men into different categories and subjects them to different expectations. Take, for example, a discussion of “a predator” who harasses or assaults “a victim.” In the English language, neither the word “predator” nor the word “victim” takes a specific gender in linguistic terms. But in Spanish, the words for “predator” and “victim” are gendered: un depredador is masculine, and una victim is feminine. We see the same pattern in French, Italian, and Portuguese. These linguistic structures can perpetuate gender-based distinctions between who does what and to whom.
But these linguistically-driven gender-based power differentials happen not only when we talk about sexual harassment. Instead, everyday language use can easily support how people view gender equality. The word for “worker” – again un-gendered in English – is masculine in Spanish (un trabajador). Admittedly, these references can be modified to reflect women’s occupation of such roles – e.g., una trabajadora in Spanish. However, the reality is that the everyday use of language requires speakers to make such distinctions. Even if individuals choose not to identify female workers as “female workers” but rather as just “workers,” in Spanish women who work are referenced with a masculine term. And this is by no means a Spanish – or any Romance language – phenomenon. We see these distinctions in the Germanic languages (e.g., de arbeider versus de arbeiderin in Dutch; der Arbeiter versus die Arbeiterin in German) and the Slavic languages (e.g., radnik versus radnica in Croatian; pracovník versus pracovnička in Czech).
This type of constant gender-based distinction implicitly affects how people see the world. When someone’s language is based on a linguistic structure that requires them to always describe the world in a gender-distinct way, it continuously makes them aware of gender differences. This awareness can render it difficult for that that person to think about people in a non-gendered (or un-gendered) way. In our Gender & Society article, we argue that people are less likely to be supportive of gender equality and women’s rights when the language they speak constantly reinforces gender-based differences.
At first glance, our work shows just that. People who speak languages that constantly require them to reference gender – of things, people, etc. – are less supportive of gender equality in political, economic, and social contexts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries where the official language (or the most commonly spoken one in the absence of an official language) is one that requires people to speak – and therefore think – in gendered terms are also the countries where women’s rights tend to be lower. In contrast, people who speak languages that rarely or never require them to reference gender tend to be more supportive of gender equality, and countries where such languages are official are inclined to have higher levels of women’s rights.
Yet, we also demonstrate that people can be linguistically primed to deemphasize the salience of gender. We run an experiment on bilingual Romanian (a Romance language with a lot of gender) and Hungarian (a gender-less non-Indo-European language) students. We show that when speakers are asked to engage in a series of questions about gender equality using Hungarian, they are more likely to support gender equality than when the same questions are in Romanian. This tells us that – while the everyday use of a language can reinforce people’s existing gender attitudes – these effects can be muted if the gendered features of the language can be altered to deemphasize gender differences.
Amy H. Liu is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book Standardizing Diversity (2015: Pennsylvania) examines the politics of language regimes in Asia. She is currently working on a second book manuscript focusing on linguistic repertories among Chinese migrants in Central-Eastern Europe.
Sarah Shair-Rosenfield is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. Her current research focuses on representation and elections, decentralization, executive-legislative relations, and gender and conflict studies, with special interest in the politics of Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Lindsey Vance holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Colorado Boulder. She is Director of Data and Strategy at Teach for America and has worked as a consultant for multiple NGOs developing metrics to assess women’s empowerment and social change.
Zsombor Csata is a sociologist at Babeș-Bolyai University and the director of the Research Center on Inter-Ethnic Relations in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He has conducted several research projects on ethnicity, entrepreneurship and regional development in Central and Eastern Europe. His recent research focuses on the economic aspects of diversity and the economics of language.