Using Gender-Neutral Pronouns Like "They" Can Change Society for the Better

What's in a name? A lot more than political correctness.

Unsplash / Sharon McCutcheon

Slowly but steadily, the use of gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” to refer to people who prefer not to be gendered is becoming more widely adopted. Yet the practice has its opponents, and they’re particularly vocal. The controversial Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, for one, has railed against it as part of a greater campaign against political correctness. But as researchers show Monday in PNAS, using gender-neutral pronouns has less to do with political correctness and more to do with changing perceptions toward historically marginalized groups for the better.

Co-authored by political scientist professors Efrén Pérez, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Margit Tavits, Ph.D., of Washington University in St. Louis, the study shows that the use of gender-neutral pronouns is associated with less biased views of gender. They came to this conclusion after conducting three large-scale experiments in Sweden, which formally adopted a gender-neutral pronoun, hen, to complement hon (“she”) and han (“he”) in 2015.

Pérez is well aware of the “political correctness” argument, which says that pronouns have little to do with people’s actual views about gender and more to do with not offending people. “When we started this project, we anticipated this as a plausible alternative explanation,” he tells Inverse. “So did our peer reviewers.”

Taking this into account, he and Tavits designed a two-part study that would demonstrate how influential our choice of words could be.

Using gender-neutral pronouns is associated with decreased "mental salience" of males. 

Unsplash / Cecilie Johnsen

A Two-Part Study

From the perspective of people who support gender-neutral pronouns, write Pérez and Tavits, “masculine pronouns privilege the cognitive salience of males at the expense of nonmales.” In other words, gendered pronouns perpetuate traditional patterns of thinking about gender, in which males are more prominent. (Think about the use of terms like “mankind” for all humanity, or the now-frowned-upon practice of defaulting to male pronouns for generic use.)

And if that’s the case, they write, then gender-neutral pronouns “might operate by chipping away at males’ mental orthodoxy, allowing nonmale groups” — that means females, LGBTQ, and nonbinary people — “to become more pronounced.”

To test their hypothesis, they designed a two-part study, conducted through survey experiments on 3,393 Swedish adults.

The first part of the study shows that people who used gender-neutral pronouns while describing an androgynous figure were less mentally biased toward men. Participants looked a figure of an androgynous person walking a dog, then described it, using the pronouns they deemed appropriate, in three sentences. The people who used a gender-neutral pronoun in their description were subsequently less likely to assign a male name to a fictional politician of their own imagining in another part of the test.

That suggested that people who use gender-neutral pronouns are less bound to traditional ways of thinking about gender, in which males are the default.

Participants had the choice of using male, female, or gender-neutral pronouns to describe this androgynous figure.

Pérez and Tavits, PNAS

But Pérez and Tavits wanted to rule out the possibility that this result was skewed by “social desirability bias,” or the tendency for people to answer in a way that they think will reflect positively on them. (In other words, sharing politically correct opinions because that’s what society prefers.) To do so, they imposed a timer on people as they shared their opinions about women and LGBT people in public life and listed male, female, and gender-neutral names.

As the team found, people took the same amount of time to answer the survey when using gender-neutral pronouns as they did when using gendered pronouns.

What this shows, says Pérez, is that “the effect of these pronouns—even the gender-neutral one—is automatic. That is, people don’t have to think too hard or too much for it to manifest, which suggests the effects of this gender-neutral pronoun are fully integrated into the grammatical toolkit of most Swedish speakers, on average.”

It seems that the Swedish participants, having collectively adopted the use of the gender-neutral pronoun, have internalized the significance of using those words: that using language that doesn’t privilege males causes personal attitudes toward gender to shift in a similar way.

“The logic of that study is this: if using a gender-neutral pronoun leads to more liberal attitudes toward gender and LGBT equality because of political correctness, then people should take longer to report names that are gender-neutral, masculine, or feminine,” says Pérez. “But that’s not what happens. People report these names at equal proportions irrespective of whether they report these names under a time constraint or not.”

Is Sweden a Special Case?

Sweden, the authors point out, debated using the gender-neutral pronoun between 2012 and 2014, so by the time it was formally adopted in the media and government in 2015, there was near-universal familiarity with the pronoun and it wasn’t much of an issue.

Would the same be true for countries with less liberal opinions toward women and LGBTQ people, like the United States? Pérez can only speculate — that wasn’t the focus of the study — but can imagine a scenario in which it happens.

The use of the pronoun “they” to be more gender-inclusive is becoming more common, he notes; Condé Nast, for example, launched a publication called Them to focus on LGBTQ+ people in 2017.

“Use of this word as a more inclusive pronoun still feels a bit weird or unusual for many individuals, which means that it is not a regularly rehearsed aspect of English-speakers’ grammatical toolkit — and so it likely has a weak effect or no effect at all,” he says.

“But if this pronoun was made a linguistic norm, it would increasingly become part of our grammar, which ultimately could have the type of effects we observed in Sweden.”

By underscoring the power of language to shape public attitudes and beliefs, this study suggests that there’s more to adopting gender-neutral pronouns than simply appearing politically correct or woke. Doing so, at least in Sweden’s case, appears to have a real and positive impact on groups who have historically been marginalized.

“Wishing that something is only about political correctness and figuring out how likely that is the case are two different things,” says Pérez.

To improve gender equality and tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, several nations have promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns and words. Do these linguistic devices actually reduce biases that favor men over women, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals? The current article explores this question with 3 large-scale experiments in Sweden, which formally incorporated a gender-neutral pronoun into its language alongside established gendered pronouns equiv- alent to he and she. The evidence shows that compared with mas- culine pronouns, use of gender-neutral pronouns decreases the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with individuals expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and cate- gories, as reflected in more favorable attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public life. Additional analyses reveal sim- ilar patterns for feminine pronouns. The influence of both pro- nouns is more automatic than controlled.