A great little paper
came out last week adding further grist to the GFP mill. As we all know around these parts, the concept of gender-neutral anything is a bit of a chimaera: because of our default male bias, anything that isn’t explicitly marked as female tends to be read as male. As a result, gender-neutral often isn’t gender-neutral at all. It’s male.
From Invisible Women:
It’s easy to slam phone manufacturers and social media plat- forms as sexist (and, as we shall see, they are, if often unknowingly), but the reality is that even if they had somehow managed to design an image of a ‘gender neutral’ runner, most of us would still have read that runner as male, because we read most things as male unless they are specifically marked as female. And so while it is of course to be hoped that angry grammarians will come round to the idea that saying ‘he and she’ (or even, God forbid, ‘she and he’) instead of just ‘he’ may not be the worst thing that has ever happened to them, the truth is that getting rid of the generic masculine would only be half the battle: male bias is so firmly embedded in our psyche that even genuinely gender-neutral words are read as male.
A 2015 study identified the top five words used to refer to peo- ple in human–computer interaction papers published in 2014 and found that they are all apparently gender neutral: user, participant, person, designer and researcher. Well done, human–computer interaction academics! But there is (of course) a catch. When study participants were instructed to think about one of these words for ten seconds and then draw an image of it, it turned out that these apparently gender-neutral words were not perceived as equally likely to be male or female. For male participants, only ‘designer’ was interpreted as male less than 80% of the time (it was still almost 70% male). A researcher was more likely to be depicted as of no gender than as a female. Women were slightly less gender-biased, but on the whole were still more likely to read gender-neutral words as male, with only ‘person’ and ‘participant’ (both read by about 80% of male participants as male) being about 50/50.
This rather disheartening finding tallies with decades of ‘draw a scientist’ data, where participants overwhelmingly draw men (the bias has historically been so extreme that media around the world celebrated as great progress a recent paper which found that 28% of children now draw women). It also tallies, perhaps more disturbingly, with a 2008 study in which Pakistani students (aged nine and ten) who were asked to draw an image of ‘us’. Hardly any of the female students drew women and none of the male students did.
We don’t even allow non-humans to escape our perception of the world as overwhelmingly male: when researchers in one study attempted to prompt participants to see a gender-neutral stuffed animal as female by using female pronouns, children, parents and carers still overwhelmingly referred to the animal as ‘he’. The study found that an animal must be ‘super-feminine’ before ‘even close to half of participants will refer to it as she rather than he’. (IW, pp.9-10)
I wrote that in 2018 and it turns out that in 2022, nothing much has changed. This paper
looked at the phenomenon of “pareidolia” – our human tendency to see faces in a banana, or a piece of toast, or a boat. 3815 people were shown “256 unique photographs of illusory faces in a diverse set of different natural and man-made objects, such as potatoes, suitcases, and pastries”. Like these: