Is the “Feminization” of Professional Titles a Good Thing?

One item on the to-do list of progressive societies is creating a more gender-neutral language. There are generally two ways of doing this. The first, “neutralization,” involves using one gender-neutral word to refer to men and women — for example, referring to both math and female professors as “professor” instead of the Spanish method of using profesora and profesor. The second method, “feminization,” involves creating feminine forms of nouns in order to make the presence of a female more salient — for example, using the word chairwoman instead of chairman or chair.

Most recent changes to the English language tend to involve feminization rather than neutralization, and although these changes are all positive developments in the abstract, questions remain about what specific effect these new words have on the people they describe. For example, could these new words hurt a woman’s reputation, either because they’re unfamiliar or because they emphasize the undermining of gender norms?

That’s the question a group of Polish researchers recently set out to answer. In two initial experiments they created a fake job title and then presented participants with people who had that job. One group was presented with a female described by the feminine version of the job title, a second group was presented with a female described by the masculine version of the job title, and a third group was presented with a male described by the masculine version of the job title. The job titles were in Polish — diarolog (masculine) and diarolożka (feminine) —  but if they had been in English you could imagine they were something seemingly legitimate like “senior reductorman” and “senior reductorwoman.” The important thing is that participants were sold on the authenticity of the job titles.

Once participants read about the “diarologs” they were asked to evaluate their ability to do the job. The researchers found that females with the feminine job title received lower evaluations than both the men and the women who had masculine job titles. Feminization appeared to be harming women, although the researchers still weren’t sure of the cause. One explanation was that women were in fact being punished for taking on male roles, but an alternative explanation was simply that unfamiliarity with the feminine version of the job title led to lower ratings.

To solve this issue the researchers conducted a third experiment that asked about candidates for a beautician job — a role that’s lower status and stereotypically female — and a nanotechnology job — a role that’s high status and stereotypically male. The researchers found that people who had the feminine beautician job title received lower ratings than those with the masculine beautician job title, the same outcome that occurred with the nanotechnology job and in earlier experiments. Because the feminine job title led to lower ratings even in stereotypically female jobs, the researchers concluded that it’s the oddity of feminine job titles that causes the lower ratings, not their ability to upset gender norms.

This finding is important because it means there’s a tradeoff between short-term costs and long-term benefits when it comes to adding gender-neutrality to a language.

Feminine forms may sound strange, and negative connotations may be prominent. But the more feminine job titles are created, the more frequently and systematically they are used in reference to women, the more normal they will sound and the more neutral the feminine suffixes should become in the long run (see the mere exposure effect in Zajonc, 2001). They may then unfold their positive potential with few traces of side effects.

In the short-run somebody who’s described as a chairwoman or spokeswoman may have their status diminished, but as those words cease to raise even the most sexist person’s eyebrow, those drawbacks will disappear. Moreover, in the long-run the existence of feminine job titles ought to help entrench the idea of women in powerful positions and lead to a marginally higher level of equality. So if you have a job with -woman attached to the end, make sure that 30 years from now the young girls are thanking you for all you’ve done for them.
Formanowicz, M., Bedynska, S., Cisłak, A., Braun, F., & Sczesny, S. (2012). Side effects of gender-fair language: How feminine job titles influence the evaluation of female applicants European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1924


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