I didn’t watch the superbowl, but I caught the highlights/controversial moments the next morning. After witnessing people going off about how they didn’t like the switched up “America the Beautiful,” due to the addition of one word – sisterhood (they kept brotherhood, for anyone keeping score – view the video at this link). And I thought I’d weigh in with my knowledge re: inclusive language.

I have three communications degrees, right? I can’t remember the exact study I learned about, but the results remain embedded in my brain. A bunch of people were asked to either draw or describe what comes into their brain when told certain words. Policeman. Fireman. Mailman. Caveman. You get the idea. 

These people did not draw women.

These people did not imagine women.

It’s all well and good to theoretically understand that he = all, that mankind = humanity. But those aren’t the images that pop into our brain and create a building block for understanding.

Inclusive language matters. It’s not simply a matter of being politically correct. I know Strunk and White say it’s not elegant, but I don’t care. When I communicate, I want to be clear with what it is I’m talking about (usually). Inclusive language helps with that.

So, for anyone that wants a dose of facts when discussing this stuff, here are a bunch of studies done in this area.

Is the generic pronoun he still comprehended as excluding women? We investigated whether the use of he as a generic masculine (GM) pronoun affects comprehension. Participants read sentences containing GM or sex-specific pronouns and indicated whether each sentence could refer to a female. GM sentences were less accurately interpreted than sex-specific sentences, indicating that the sex-specific function of masculine pronouns dominates in comprehension. We also varied sentence antecedents, and participants made fewer errors on sentences with predominantly female than predominantly male or neutral antecedents. In another experiment, we tested male and female participants under conditions of time pressure. Participants of both sexes evidenced the error pattern of Experiment 1. Findings support the hypothesis that GM pronouns reduce the likelihood of thought of females in what are intended to be non-sex-specific instances. (2009)

Alternating Between Masculine and Feminine Pronouns: Does Essay Topic Affect Readers’ Perceptions? Authors are routinely advised to avoid using masculine pronouns to refer to both men and women. Some style guides recommend alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns instead. Unfortunately, previous research with gender-neutral text indicates that readers perceive alternating pronouns to be biased in favor of women. We tested readers’ perceptions of alternating pronouns in an essay on a traditionally feminine topic, on a traditionally masculine topic, and on a gender-neutral topic. There were four versions of each essay. One version alternated between masculine and feminine pronouns, a second version used paired masculine and feminine pronouns throughout the passage (e.g., ‘he or she’), and the remaining two versions used exclusively masculine pronouns or feminine pronouns. Readers overestimated the frequency of feminine pronouns in alternating text except when they occurred in an essay on a traditionally feminine topic. Readers also thought alternating pronouns were gender-biased and low in overall quality. (2006)

Visible or influential? Language reforms and gender (in)equality. There is much controversy regarding the use and the effects of politically correct (PC) language and language reforms. This article is focussed on gender-related PC language, that is, non-sexist language. After a short account of the debate on the issue, it is shown that, with regard to gender, language reforms can be based on two main strategies: inclusion and visibility. The preference for one or the other strategy depends not only on the characteristics of the specific language but also on the aim considered as a priority in the context. After an overview of language changes introduced in different (mainly European) countries, studies on the effects of sexist language and language reforms are reviewed. Finally the practical implications of the scientific findings on the issue are discussed. (2005)

Attitudes Toward Women Mediate the Gender Effect on Attitudes Toward Sexist Language. Studies of attitudes toward sexist language have consistently revealed a gender gap, with women considerably more supportive of inclusive language than men. The present study investigated this gender gap in the presence of “attitudes toward women,” a potential mediator variable. Participants were a convenience sample of 18- to 20-year-old college students (N= 278). Most were European American/White (87%) women (60%). Data were collected using the Modern Sexism Scale, Neosexism Scale, Attitudes Toward Women Scale, and Inventory of Attitudes Toward Sexist/Nonsexist Language-General. The customary gender gap in attitudes toward sexist language was found in this sample. Regression tests of mediation, however, revealed that when measures of attitudes toward women were included in the analysis, the gender effect diminished by as much as 61% (p<.01). These findings provide empirical evidence of a link between attitudes toward sexist language and the cultural construct, attitudes toward women. (2004)

The Animal = Male Hypothesis: Children’s and Adults’ Beliefs About the Sex of Non–Sex-Specific Stuffed Animals. The Animal = Male Hypothesis, a variation of Silveira’s People = Male Hypothesis (Silveira, 1980), was examined. In Study 1, children ages 3–10 years and adults told stories about a gender-neutral stuffed animal, in Study 2 children ages 5–6 years told stories about 3 neutral and 3 feminine animals, and in Study 3 children ages 5–7 years told stories about 2 neutral animals, observed an adult model use feminine pronouns to refer to an animal, then told stories about 2 more animals. Dependent variables were the pronouns participants used to refer to the animals and what sex they believed the animals were. Results showed strong evidence for an animal = male bias in all 3 studies among children and adults of both sexes on both dependent measures. There were few sex-related differences. The modeling intervention was not successful in reducing the bias. (2003)

Effects of Pronoun Type and Gender Role Consistency on Children’s Recall and Interpretation of Stories. The pronouns he, she, and they were compared with he and she alternating, to examine recall and gender interpretation of stories. Participants, who were ethnically diverse, were 48 girls and boys aged 6 and 9 from working-class and middle-class areas of San Antonio. Children read stories about imaginary characters of ambiguous gender referred to by varying pronouns and enjoying either stereotypically masculine, feminine, or neutral activities. Recall was higher for girls, older children, and children who heard stories containing she instead of he. Six-year-olds, but not 9-year-olds, recalled more information from stories containing gender-consistent activities. Interpretation of character gender for he, she, and he/she alternating was based largely on pronoun; for stories using they, it was based both on pronoun and activity. The results underscore the nongeneric nature of generic pronouns and the gender differences in recall and interpretation evoked by contact with gender specific reading material. (2000)

Does Alternating Between Masculine and Feminine Pronouns Eliminate Perceived Gender Bias in Text? This study explores whether alternating betweenthe pronouns “he” and “she” ina text is an effective way to avoid sexist language.Participants were psychology students at a largemidwestern university and were predominately White and frommiddle-class backgrounds. Students read two versions ofan essay, one that alternated between masculine andfeminine pronouns and one that exclusively used paired, “he or she”-type pronouns. Readersperceived the alternating version to be biased in favorof females and lower in overall quality than the pairedversion. However, the alternating version appeared to be more effective at combating sexism,suggesting an alternating strategy may be desirable forauthors with this goal. If the author is not primarilyconcerned with increasing readers’ awareness of gender issues, techniques such as pluralization or thesingular “they” may be more appropriate. (1999)

Do Language Reforms Change Our Way of Thinking? A naturalistic experiment investigated the effects of language reforms on several aspects of thought. Half of the students in an introductory psychology class received corrections any time they used “he” as a generic pronoun in their written work; the other half received no corrections to their written language use. At the end of the semester, all students completed measures of their language use, their gender imagery, and their attitudes to-ward language reforms. Results showed that the language corrections did reduce students’ subsequent use of gender-biased language but did not affect their imagery nor their attitudes toward language reforms. Additional results revealed thatgender imagery was related to the gender connotations of the language encountered in the imagery task, especially for female students, and to language use for students who did not receive corrections. Implications of these results for the debate about the masculine generic prescription are discussed. (1994)

Gendered Pronouns and Sexist Language: The Oxymoronic Character of Masculine Generics. This experiment investigated the propensity of the generic he to evoke images of males relative to he/she and the plural they. Undergraduates read sentences aloud and verbally described the images that came to mind. The results provide strong support for the hypothesis that the generic he evokes a disproportionate number of male images. Results also suggest that while the plural they functions as a generic pronoun for both males and females, males may comprehend he/she in a manner similar to he. Theoretical implications for a critique of sexist language and prescribing generic pronoun usage are considered. (1990)

Children’s understanding of sexist language. Explored the role of language in the sex-typing process, focusing specifically on the “gender neutral” use of “he” and “his.” In Exp I, 140 males and 170 females from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades and from college participated in a task in which they told stories in response to a cue sentence containing “he,” “he or she,” or “they.” Ss also supplied pronouns in a fill-in task and were explicitly questioned about their knowledge of the gender-neutral use of “he.” Results indicate that 12%, 18%, and 42% of the stories were about females when “he,” “they,” and “he or she” were used, respectively. There was a significant interaction of grade level, sex of S, and pronoun. Children, even 1st graders, supplied “he” in gender neutral fill-in sentences. Only 28% of 1st graders, but 84% of college students appeared to understand the grammatical rule for the gender-neutral use of “he.” Exp II replicated some aspects of Exp I and extended the design with 64 male and 68 female 3rd and 5th graders. “She” was included as a 4th pronoun condition in the storytelling and produced 77% female stories. A description of a fictitious, gender-neutral occupation, “wudgemaker,” was read to Ss, with repeated references either to “he,” “they,” “he or she,” or “she.” Ss’ rating of how well women could do the job were significantly affected by pronoun, ratings being lowest for “he,” intermediate for “they” and “he or she,” and highest for “she.” It is argued that role of language in gender-role development should receive more attention. (1984)