Gender stereotypes embedded in language can have a significant effect on the way women are treated in STEM industries, according to a new study from the US.
Molly Lewis, a cognitive scientist in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, co-authored a study that looked closely at 25 languages to explore the gender stereotypes in language that compromise efforts to support gender equality across STEM career paths.
They found a range of startling results that show the impact language has on male and female stereotypes. Lewis and her team examined how certain words coincide or are associated with women compared to men. They did this by looking at the prevalence of how often ‘woman’ is automatically associated with ‘home,’ ‘children’ and ‘family,’ where as ‘man’ was associated with ‘work,’ ‘career’ and ‘business.’
Her team looked at statistics on gender associations embedded in various languages and discovered that languages with greater gender biases tend to have speakers with stronger gender biases, revealing how implicit gender associations are strongly predicted by the language we speak.
The paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour involved 657,335 participants across 39 countries. It found how easily stereotypes are learned from language and how “linguistic associations shape people’s implicit judgements,” the paper described.
Lewis hopes to find the source of these biases and eventually, to correct them. “Young children have strong gender stereotypes as do older adults, and the question is where do these biases come from,” she said.
“No one has looked at implicit language—simple language that co-occurs over a large body of text—that could give information about stereotypical norms in our culture across different languages.”
Cultural stereotypes, like the notion that men are more suited to paid work and women are for taking care of the home and family, may harmfully contribute to gender imbalances in STEM fields, a gender disparity Lewis hopes to correct.
The paper notes that children begin ingraining gender stereotypes in their culture by the age of two and that children’s books written and designed to exclude gender-biased ideas may be a worthwhile corrective.
“The consequences of these results are pretty profound,” Lewis said. “The results suggest that if you speak a language that is really biased then you are more likely to have a gender stereotype that associates men with career and women with family.”
In April this year, Dr Jessica Borger, an immunologist in Translational Research and Medicine at Monash University, noted in this publication that women are already poorly represented in the STEM workforce and continue to be excluded from fully participating in science, with less than 30% of researchers worldwide being women.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic the amplification of male voices in the media and our research institutions conserved the invisibility of women in STEM,” she wrote. “Numerous qualified female epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists and clinicians were on the frontline of the COVID-19 response yet media outlets biased reporting towards male scientists, further compounding the inequities we have always had to manage of failing to promote our leadership and provide role models to younger women.”
In March, Professor Cobie Rudd, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President at Edith Cowan University, told Women’s Agenda that she still encounters people who believe she must be a man due to the “professor” in her title.
Professor Rudd noted that Australian women hold fewer academic positions than men at, or above, the level of senior lecturer. “We’ve seen slow increases at the professorial level with the proportion of female professors increasing from 24.3% in 2012 to 27.3% in 2016 (Universities Australia). It’s not that impressive really, at only just above one quarter,” she said.
“I think it’s worth highlighting what that means: it’s everybody’s business. Everybody has a role to play across sectors and industries. It’s not just about women. Developing a more inclusive culture means men have a clear and critical role to play. Addressing their unconscious bias and traditional stereotyping are game changers.”