Sexism in writing is still commonplace

Back to News Publish Date: 14-Sep-2011
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Sexism in writing is still commonplace

Putting male names in front of female names may be normal practice, but it is also according to Dr Peter Hegarty and colleagues of the University of Surrey a remnant of sexist thinking.

 

The practice of putting male names before women seems to have started in the 16th Century when men were considered to be the more important gender. The practice has continued to the present day.

 

We routinely refer to Mr and Mrs, and generally put male names ahead of female partners, think Romeo and Juliet, Terry and June etc.

 

Most people are probably unaware of the sexist origins of what has become normal practice, even though most people would attest to the equality of both genders, so the researchers set out to investigate the psychological reasoning behind this sexist habit.

 

The teams first investigation focused on how male and female names are used in editorial content on the internet.

 

Using ten popular British and American boys and girls names the researchers searched the internet using combinations of male and female names, such as Peter and Claire, and Claire and Peter.

 

When the British combinations were used the male name first pairings accounted for 79% of the internet mentions. When the American names pairings were used the male names came first in 70% of the mentions.

 

The results show that gender stereotypes still influence the way in which written language is used.

 

The researchers also investigated whether the male name first preference was the result of the phonological attributes of male names, or because male names are more familiar or come more easily to mind.

 

121 pople were asked to imagine a heterosexual-couple who were either ‘quite traditional and who conform strictly to gender scripts about how the two genders should behave’ or ‘non-traditional who deviate radically’. They were then asked to write down five name-combinations for their imaginary couple.

 

Participants named the imagined ‘traditional couples’ men-first more often than chance, but this effect was not seen for the naming of ‘non-traditional’ couples.

 

In a third study, 86 people were asked to write down names of an imagined lesbian or gay couple. Participants were then asked to assign attributes such as annual earnings, interest in fashion, interest in sport and physical attributes to each individual – for example Simon is physically stronger than John. Participants assigned significantly more of the masculine attributes and fewer of the feminine attributes to the person they named first.

 

The results suggest that people tend to put men, or male qualities, before women. As this is a remnant of the sexist grammar of the 16th century, it would seem that psychologically, we are still sexist in writing.

 

However, the effect is likely to occur only among couples that people don’t know well. “When people address greeting cards to couples, for example, they often put the person that they know best first, whether female or male.”


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