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One Reason for the Gender Pay Gap: You're Speaking It

A new nation-by-nation comparison suggests language is a driver of inequality.
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(Photo: ChristianChan/Shutterstock)

(Photo: ChristianChan/Shutterstock)

American women who work full-time make, on average, 78 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. How do we account for this?

A 2007 study pointed to a variety of factors, including the industries and specific occupations women tend to choose (or are nudged into). But after taking such realities into account, more than 41 percent of the gap was still unaccounted for.

Newly published research proposes one possible explanation, and it's as basic as you can get: the language we speak.

An analysis by three University of Warsaw scholars finds that nations using relatively gender-neutral languages have a smaller gender wage gap.

"We hypothesized that in countries where language has a more marked distinction between genders, differences in labor market outcomes will be larger," a research team led by Joanna Tyrowicz writes in the journal Economics Letters. "The results robustly confirm the hypothesis."

An analysis finds that nations using relatively gender-neutral languages have a smaller gender wage gap.

Noting that "it is rarely questioned that language influences human behavior," the researchers examined "asymmetric treatment of genders in languages," ranging from rules of grammar to "idiomatic expressions that glorify one gender" and demean the other.

The researchers note that some languages, such as French, link specific nouns to genders. Others, including English, use different pronouns for men and women ("his" and "hers"). In contrast, they write, "Mandarin or Finnish have no system of gender identification in the language."

Using data from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures, the researchers determined whether the language primarily spoken in a given country had a "sex-based gender system." They then compared this information with estimates for gender wage disparities in more than 50 countries, which they compiled using data from 117 studies published between 2005 and 2014.

The result: "We find that nations with more gender-neutral languages tend to be characterized by lower estimates of a gender wage gap."

The researchers offer several potential mechanisms explaining this relationship. They argue that, in countries where the language reflects a norm of gender equality, employers may be less likely to discriminate against women.

Furthermore, "workers may be less inclined to follow gender-specific prejudices about the jobs when choosing professions and positions," they write. "Finally, gender neutrality is likely to reduce the extent to which women's wage offers are lower."

Of course, when it comes to language, a chicken-and-egg question (or should it be rooster-and-egg?) inevitably arises. Does language reflect societal assumptions and prejudices, or does it reinforce them? Presuming the answer is "both," a conscious shift away from gender-specific words and phrases could improve the situation for the next generation of female workers.

"From a policy perspective," van der Velde and his colleagues conclude, "the major message of our study is that the gender wage gap may be driven by some deep societal features stemming from such basic social codes as language."

To reduce it, they add, "education on gender equality is needed at early stages of education, when language characteristics are absorbed by children and translated into social norms."

So youngsters need to be taught that, when they grow up, they could be a business owner (not a businessman), or a police officer (not a policeman). Forgive the gender-biased expression, but that "-man" suffix is a man-sized problem.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.