The use of the term "they" to refer to people who don't identify as male or female has gained considerable acceptance in recent years. But consider this scenario: What if we had the option of referring to anyone as "they," or some other gender-neutral term?
The Swedes introduced just such an option four years ago, and new research suggests it may be helping to promote gender equality. A new study reports that using Sweden's new gender-neutral pronoun reduces the reflexive tendency to equate "people" with "men."
"This shift is associated with people expressing less bias in favor of traditional roles and categories," write political scientists Margit Tavits of Washington University in St. Louis and Efrén Pérez of the University of California–Los Angeles. They write that this reduced level of prejudice is "manifested in more positive attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public affairs."
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers note that, in 2015, the Swedish Academy Glossary, which sets norms for the country's language, formally adopted the neutral word hen, while keeping the traditional terms hon ("she") and han ("he").
"The debate began in 2012 and lasted through July 2014," the researchers note, adding that, "by the time of hen's adoption, the issue was no longer politically divisive."
Tavits and Pérez set out to determine if use of that term could change people's mindsets and behaviors. Previous research has found that using languages with gendered grammar, such as French and Spanish, is associated with higher levels of sexist thinking, although that earlier study didn't make it clear whether the main issue was the language itself, or the culture from which it arose.
For the new research, in two studies, featuring 315 and 1,840 Swedes respectively, the team asked participants to describe an androgynous figure walking a dog. In doing so, participants were instructed to use either the masculine han, the feminine hon, or the neutral hen.
They were then instructed to complete a purportedly unrelated exercise, in which they were given the beginning of a story and then asked to use their creativity to continue it. The story began: "Today, I met a person who is interested in running for political office. The person is...."
The participants were asked to give that person a first name, and describe in two sentences what happened next.
Not surprisingly, those who used the feminine hon were more likely to describe the aspiring officeholder as a woman. But so were those who used the gender-neutral hen.
Finally, participants were asked to name three prominent female politicians; gave their views on several gender-related issues, including whether more women should hold ministerial positions; and reported how favorably they felt toward LGBT groups and issues such as gay marriage.
Compared to those who used the masculine han, participants who used the neutral hen displayed "greater knowledge of female politicians, and stronger pro-female preferences," the researchers write. "This implies that gender-neutral pronouns prime non-males in memory, which then leads people to express more positive attitudes toward women in politics."
The use of hen was also associated with "people expressing more positive feelings toward gay and transgender individuals, as well as more favorable opinions about the social and political inclusion of those groups," they add.
These results suggest that "language effects on cognition are real," the researchers conclude. They argue that adopting gender-neutral terms could help societies move toward higher levels of gender equality.
Perhaps the way to defeat the patriarchy is one pronoun at a time.