Why is Austria More Unequal than Norway? – The Impact of Language on Gender Equality

by Ilaria Ravazzolo, GLOBUS Correspondent

Have you ever considered that you may be reinforcing gender inequality with the way you speak? Have you ever thought about the impact that language might have on the discrimination of women? Whether you have previously contemplated this or not, you’ll probably be surprised to hear that language does in fact impact gender equality to such a great extent that this is visible in a country’s performance in development indicators. You might ask: how does it do that? The short answer is: in numerous ways. The slightly longer answer is in the rest of this article.

The impact of language on gender equality is a very complex topic with many more links yet to be found in future research. The way we speak affects the way we think – it influences basic aspects of visual perception. Therefore, language impacts our perception of social norms – this includes gender. It can influence which professions we see as typically male or female, for example, and which inanimate objects we see as intrinsically male or female. Caroline Criado Perez highlights that various studies of different languages have continuously found that the so-called ‘generic masculine’ (where words like ‘he’ are used in a gender-neutral way) is in reality not understood in a generic way, but is overwhelmingly read as male. She explains these findings with the fact that the intrinsic male bias (both reflected in and reinforced by language) is ‘so firmly embedded in our psyche that even genuinely gender-neutral words [like doctor or actor] are read as male’. What is more, many feminist critics of language have argued that nowadays language is overwhelmingly androcentric, putting girls and women at a disadvantage in personal and professional relationships.

One of the main ways in which language affects our way of thinking, and thus gender equality, is through its grammatical gender. The term ‘grammatical gender’ refers to gender based on arbitrary assignment, without regard to the referent of a noun. This shapes how the speakers of the language interpret the world around them in terms of gender differences. Some recent studies have even found a link between the grammatical gender of a language and sexist attitudes among those who speak it. There are three main groups in which almost every language can be categorised, which are: natural gender, gendered and genderless. Natural gender languages include English and Scandinavian languages. They are characterised by their use of pronouns to distinguish the gender of a noun because most of the nouns in these languages don’t have a grammatical gender marking. Gender markers give the language syntactic structure and a categorisation schema, which is a way of signalling that a word (in this case a noun) refers to a male or female object or being. In gendered languages (sometimes also referred to as grammatical gender languages), on the other hand, all nouns have a feminine, masculine or in some cases neutral gender assigned to them. For example, in French ‘la maison’ (the house) is feminine, whereas ‘le livre’ (the book) is masculine. These languages include Slavic, Germanic, Romance Indo-Aryan and Semitic languages. Whereas the third group, genderless languages, can be recognised by their lack of gender distinction, which means that none of the nouns have a gender assigned to them. For example, in Mandarin, nouns and pronouns don’t have a gender marker. These languages are typically Uralic, Turkic, Iranian, Sinitic and Bantu.

Research by Prewitt-Freilino et al. (2011) has indicated that countries where a gendered language is spoken exhibit less gender equality than countries with genderless languages. This is because the former are fundamentally based on gender, and hence, it is complicated to reform their grammatical structures and rebalance the gender asymmetry in a way that still feels natural for speakers. However, unexpectedly, countries with genderless languages weren’t found to be the most gender-equal. This title goes to countries with natural gender languages, which are able to include gender-symmetrical components of language such as nouns and pronouns (unlike genderless languages where this is impossible). Yet, compared to gendered languages, natural gender languages don’t depend on gendered structures and so can carry out symmetrical revisions more easily. In genderless languages, words that appear to be gender-neutral can have gender-biased interpretations nonetheless, which explains why we can find gender inequality in countries with genderless languages. Having said that, there are differences between the languages in the three categories of course and their grammatical structures are by no means the same. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that, overall, the differences between the groups are consistent despite the intragroup variations.

What does that mean in practical terms? The research undertaken by Prewitt-Freilino et al. links the grammatical gender of 134 countries’ language(s) to their development indicators, in particular to their performance in terms of gender equality. They recorded, amongst other things, the countries’ performance in the Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index and the grammatical structure of their main language. For example, at the time of this research, Austria – a country with a gendered language – had a GGG Index of 0.70. Norway, a country with a natural gender language, on the other hand, had a GGG Index of 0.82, which means (bearing in mind that in this index 0 equals perfect inequality and 1 equals perfect equality) it exhibited a considerably higher level of gender equality. South Africa, which has a genderless language, meanwhile scored a GGG Index of 0.77 and so, consistent with the theoretical explanation, was in between the two. Naturally, this doesn’t apply to all countries on the researcher’s list. Finland, for example, which has a genderless language scored higher than Norway with a GGG Index of 0.83. Exceptions like these show the intragroup differences, which, however, by no means invalidate the overall argument.

Gender (in)equality is influenced not only by language but by many other factors as well. Cultural norms, socio-economic and political factors play an important role in determining the role of women and men in society. When tackling gender inequality, it is therefore important to consider all of these factors. Countries with natural gender languages, despite being the most equal, still exhibit some degree of gender inequality. Hence, there is scope for all countries to work on decreasing gender inequality in their society. Scholars agree that changes in linguistic norms need to be accompanied by changes in social and political structures to further encourage and strengthen a change in attitudes and behaviour. By starting to think about how and why language impacts the discrimination of women, we’re merely taking a first – important – step in the direction of improved gender equality. However, in order to achieve true gender equality, much more still needs to be done.

Header image by Towfiqu Barbhuiya via Unsplash.com

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