Friday, May 20, 2011

Gender in job ads, and subconscious bias in language

You don't know what you are saying.

Sure, you think you know. You've chosen the content of what you want to say. You're thinking about what linguists call the "propositional content," or the "message" of what is being said. The fact is, though, that you're saying so much more. The complexity of language carries all kinds of information about social alignment, and the individual's stance in relation to social groups and in relation to larger discourses in society (other times the same topic has been referenced).

Yesterday I ran across this link through @geardrops on Twitter. I was fascinated, but not at all surprised, given my background in linguistic anthropology. The article talks about a study in which it was demonstrated that job postings contain language that is "gendered," or biased toward either a female or male expectation - and that potential applicants can feel this when they read the postings, and gravitate toward the ones that match their gender. Wow, right? Interesting. Within three minutes of having picked up this link, I ended up in an argument about whether we had left behind bias in the workplace, and whether a person could be considered sexist for writing an ad in this way, and whether or not "gendered" language was just something made up by academics that had no basis in reality. Geardrops' conclusion, which I loved, was this:

"Hey guess what language bias exists and is subtle."

That's right. The social messages in language are not just subtle, they are subconsicous. So let's look at what that means for a second, starting with the question of politeness.

If you ask someone, "You need to ask your professor for a pen. What do you say?" that person will give you an answer, but chances are it won't be exactly what that person would say if you recorded them in the situation. It will be - and this is important - what they think they ought to say. This is a trend backed up by all kinds of politeness research: live recordings will get you different results from what people say they do. In fact, I found precisely this in my own research. When I studied polite and casual forms in Japanese, I asked three teachers how much of each type they thought they were using in the classroom, and each one said they used formal forms most of the time. When I went in, took a videotape, transcribed and counted these forms, it turned out that they were using formal forms 35% of the time.

I'm sure you can see the difference.

The propositional content of what you say is consciously chosen. But for the most part, the manner in which you say it, and the social messages conveyed, are outside of your conscious control.

Can we say that there is "fault" involved, or accuse a person of being sexist, because of what they express in a subconscious manner?

Well, yes and no.

I often imagine language use within a culture as an enormous piece of fabric. Each person's contribution is a tiny thread within that fabric. The color of the fabric varies depending on which part you look at, but each thread will tend to be roughly the same color as the ones around it. We don't speak in a vacuum. The patterns of speech and expression that we use are learned from those around us, and the more closely our color matches the surrounding pattern, the more likely everything is to appear normal. Sexism, racism, and any other -ism that you might care to identify are mostly built into the fabric. If you're a member of an insider group, chances are pretty good that the language use patterns that show bias will be difficult to see. It's the whole "by saying mankind I mean all people" thing. The distinct color of the thread containing the word "man" will be more easily recognized by someone who doesn't match it - i.e. a woman.

I think it's more effective to talk about "gendered language" than "sexist language" because the latter implies intent. Intent is a tricky thing. In our society these days "bias" itself is seen as being wrong - which is I think a good thing - but what it means is that people can get attacked for subconsciously engaging in the fabric of the discourse around them. Should they be blamed? Probably not. Engaged with, probably yes. Every time we question biased language we're acting on the front lines of societal change. Increasing our consciousness of these mostly-invisible markers is the way to get people to notice biases they don't mean to convey, and act to change them.

Here's an important point, though. Social language is not a plus-or-minus proposition. You can go one direction or another on the road, but you're still on the road. We will always, always mark our social position, our posture, relative to others. We will always express our membership in social groups. We will strive to distinguish ourselves from groups that we don't want to be a part of by emphasizing our membership in other groups. I don't see "gendered language" ever going away; I do, however, see it changing.

Language is something that reinforces itself, and at the same time changes itself, every time that it is used.

So to be a positive force for cultural change in the world, think about increasing consciousness - your own as well as that of others. Go easy on yourself - be aware that you yourself are constantly enacting culture and social alignment without thinking, and you won't be able just to "stop." Don't blame yourself terribly if you find yourself doing something you don't want to do - just think through it and try to exert your conscious will to change it. Be willing to engage with others. Be willing to question yourself.

And next time you're looking for a job, be aware of gendered language. Be aware, too, that the person who wrote the ad probably didn't try to exclude anyone. Choose not to let that shut you down.

Change takes time, but it's worth the effort.


  1. Interesting post, and interesting timing. I was just involved in a conversation related to this very topic, most specifically the use of terms like fe-male which subconsciously tell women (another one) that we are an addendum to the male. It sounds all radical feminist and all, but I don't think of it that way. More as how society subtly influences perception of self.

    Now what I really love about your post is the engage rather than blame. There's that whole thing of needing to recognize a problem before change can occur, and since most of both the unconscious isms and the reactions to them are instinctive and therefore more emotional, approach is everything.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Margaret! I sincerely believe in "engage rather than blame," and I guess a lot of it is because of that question of who throws the first stone. We all do this on some level. None of us can be completely conscious of every subtext, whether it be gender-related or otherwise. Thus I think the best approach is to be humble.

  3. Especially since the person who did, whether you or the other, may be unable to recognize that fact if confronted :).

  4. Juliette, thank you for posting this, and I love the active, engaged, humble conclusion you reach. I feel like we're stuck inside our social contexts but can work to shift them, stretch them, transform them at least a bit.

    One thought occurred to me: You said, "If you're a member of an insider group, chances are pretty good that the language use patterns that show bias will be difficult to see." My experience is that even the bias can be invisible even to the "outsider." A lot of poor folks philosophically support systems that keep them poor, and many women strongly support patriarchal structures (including linguistic ones). I think that education and raising awareness is as important as experience in recognizing bias.

  5. John, thanks! I'm glad you liked the post. You're right that these things are often invisible to outsiders too - just, I suspect, slightly easier for outsiders to recognize when they're brought to their attention than for insiders. Consciousness-raising benefits everyone in such cases. I appreciate the comment.

  6. This is wonderful! I've long thought things like this. I read the other post, and what surprised me was how many people jumped to the conclusion that what the writers were saying was that men are competitive and dominant while women are nurturing and compassionate. That's not what they were saying at all. It just shows how quick we are to place barriers between ourselves and uncomfortable perspectives. That's the real problem: people don't want to acknowledge that culture and language really have the power that they have. I think it might be more prominent in the U.S. where we all like to think we're pure Individuals, but I don't know if that's true.

    Well, I'm probably rambling too much, but I wanted to say that I absolutely agree with you, particularly about the engage vs. blame thing. Blame only leads to more defensiveness and barriers. Because it's true that women and men are all a combination of competitive, dominant, nurturing, and compassionate . . . but language and culture still separate them into masculine and feminine.

  7. Raven, I'm glad it spoke to you. The powers of language and culture are subtle and often difficult to recognize. Part of it is that they don't exist on their own, but are intertwined with all kinds of traditions and other cultural practices. I appreciate the comment.