Gender

GRAMMATICAL ORIGINS OF GENDER ROLE

Women living in countries where the language marks gender intensively – for example, with nouns of different genders – are less likely to work or participate in politics and have a generally lower standing in society. That is the central finding of research by Victor Gay, Estefania Santacreu-Vasut and Amir Shoham, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference.

Their study analyses data from the World Atlas of Language Structures, which maps countries according to languages that have a number of genders, are sex-based, include gender-assignment and use gender pro-nouns. For example, in Spanish the phrase ‘the good doctor’ would be entirely different depending whether it is describing a male or a female doctor.

The researchers then look at the social status of immigrants to the US based on the languages of their origin countries. Among their findings:

  • Women’s participation in politics and the job market is significantly lower in countries whose most spoken language marks gender more intensively.
  • In these countries, women are more likely to work in services and not jobs traditionally occupied by men. Women are also more likely to face restrictions in owning land and accessing loans. They are more likely to save less and rely on loans from informal private lenders.
  • On average, speaking a language in which gender is more prevalent leads to up to 17 percentage points lower female participation in the job market, even when taking account of the impact of religion, colonial history, climate, geography, historical agricultural practices and levels of income.

According to previous research, gender is one of language’s most stable grammatical features, persists for thousands of years and may reflect in some way its speakers’ worldviews. In some languages, gender is evident in almost every phrase, while in other languages it is absent. The authors argue that these findings are relevant to continuing efforts to close the gender gap.

More…

As the latest World Economic Forum Gender Gap (2012) reports, ‘Closing gender gaps is thus not only a matter of human rights and equity; it is also one of efficiency.’ What explains gender gaps?

Is there a relation between the intensity of female/male distinctions in languages and women economic participation?

Gender is one of language’s most stable grammatical features and persists for thousands of years (Wichmann and Holman, 2009) and may reflect, inter alia, its speakers’ worldviews (Corbett, 1999). Yet, as observed by linguist Greville Corbett, ‘In some languages gender is evident in almost every phrase, while in other languages it is absent’ (Dryer and Haspelmath, 2011).

This research relies on the World Atlas of Language Structures, an effort by linguists to compare the economic and political participation of women across countries, across migrants in the United States and across individuals living in different countries as function of female/male distinctions in languages’ grammar.

This study codes linguist classifications of the gender system of languages and creates four gender intensity indices as displayed next. Countries in black are those whose dominant language gender variable is female/male intensive.

The researchers find that women’s participation in politics and in labour and credit markets is significantly lower in countries whose dominant (most spoken) language marks gender more intensively. In these countries, the occupational profile of women is biased toward services and against jobs traditionally occupied by men.

In addition, women in such countries are more likely to face restrictions in their access to land ownership and to credit markets; in fact, they are more likely to rely on loans from private agents (outside of formal credit circuits) and to save less.

For example, on average, speaking a language in which gender is more salient leads to up to 17 percentage points lower female participation in the labour market, even when taking account of the impact of religion, colonial history, climate, geography, historical agricultural practices and levels of income.

Similarly, individual-level data reveal that women who speak a language that marks gender more intensively are less likely to supply labour or to work in agricultural occupations. These results mirror the country level findings and do not vanish when taking account of variations in geography, climate, Spanish and British colonisation, legal origin, religion and continent.

Regarding migrants living in the US, the researchers find that women speaking a high-gendered language at home but living in a low-gender language environment are more likely to be employed than are women generally. This finding suggests that the influence of language is determined by an interaction between the cognitive framework of speakers and their cultural environment.

ENDS


Notes for editors:

‘The Grammatical Origins of Gender Roles’ by Victor Gay, Estefania Santacreu-Vasut and Amir Shoham, The FOX School of Business Temple University and The College of Management Academic Studies Israel

Contact:

Estefania Santacreu-Vasut, +33 6 82 56 36 27 (santacreuvasut@essec.edu)

RES media consultant Romesh Vaitilingam:
+44 (0) 7768 661095
romesh@vaitilingam.com
@econromesh

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