By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin
Gendered language is on everyone’s lips. Gender-biased terminology (“all men human beings are created equal”), gender-neutral pronouns (“The author of the article said… and he they also stated that…”) or gendered nouns (“the chairman chairperson”) are highly discussed and ridiculed by many.
But there is more to say about language than that. Instead of talking about how to talk about people, let’s ask the question: How do people talk? And more importantly: Is there a difference in the usage of language between men and women*?
Many comedians or sit-coms built up on this and have established, or at least strengthened, gender stereotypes with respect to how men and women talk. There is even a whole paper  elaborating on gender differences in using language which almost sounds like the record of a 90s TV series. Some examples:
- Women tend to answer questions with a rising intonation instead of a falling one. “In this way, they can show their gentleness, and sometimes this intonation shows a lack of confidence.”
- There is a specific set of feminine vocabulary that men do not use: they say blue instead of aquamarine or azure, or they call it a good meal instead of gorgeous or heavenly.
- Women use more diminutives (e.g. hanky instead of handkerchief) or words that show affection (dearie, sweety). “If a man often uses these words, people will think that he may have psychological problem or he is not manly“.
I repeat: “psychological problem”. For using the word sweety. It should be mentioned that the few references in this paper range, with one exception from 2004, from 1968 to 1980. Besides this text ranging from entertaining to incredulous, one might ask the question what to take from that. Does it matter if I say blue or aquamarine? Does my intonation matter?
At least for the last point: Yes, it does. Imagine the situation where you sit at a table with your professor and the rest of the group. You present your research with the words “Well, I guess we made a bit of progress. The results look promising, but we need to double check. There are a few things I don’t understand yet but maybe it leads to something.”. On the other hand, your more “manly” co-worker explains his work like this: “I made great progress, I have new results which look amazing. There’s only a bit of polishing missing but I’m essentially done.”. You could be talking about the very same results and still, your professor will most likely be more excited about your co-worker’s progress. Confidence is the keyword. Selling your research well let it seem to be of higher quality – independently of how good the research actually is.
In an ideal situation, your professor knows you and might understand what you mean by what you say. In a less ideal situation, you and your research might be underrated by your professor and he or she might think that you do not know what you are doing. And what is more: In the most important situations, when asking for grants or publishing your results, you will write about your research and the readers do not know you at all.
Does the difference in language between male and female scientists pose a real, measurable problem? A very recent study asked exactly this question . To answer it, the authors have estimated how positively researchers present their work by counting the number of “positive terms”- such as novel, excellent or unprecedented – in the title or abstract of a publication. They found that these words are used 12% less often in articles with female first and last author than in publication with a male first or last author. In high impact journals women were even 21% less likely to present their research positively. While this observation is not an issue per se, the authors of the study found an increase of up to 13% in subsequent citations – the unit for the quality of your work – with the usage of positive terms.
The caveat of this study is that it may include some conscious or unconscious bias against women. In a working paper from last April , researchers of the National Bureau of Economic Research tried to avoid this issue. They studied and compared the success of grant proposals from which all personal information on the author was erased. They found that female scientists were 16% less likely to achieve a high score on their proposal than men – even though the review process was blinded. How is that?
The researchers suggest that the word choice is the major cause of this finding. They discovered that men have a greater tendency towards “broad words”, i.e. words which are used in a broad subject area. Women, on the other hand, prefer “narrower words” which are very special to a narrow field. Beyond that, broad words often detected in high scoring proposals while lower scores were achieved when using narrow words. In other words: the quality of proposals written by female scientists is statistically perceived of lower quality – even if the quality is equally high.
The essence of this study is that there is one form of expression that is more likely to be successful than another. The successful way seems to be praising your research and promising the moon. Statistically, more men cultivate a successful mode of expression than women. But on a case-to-case basis, there are many down-to-earth men and as many head-in-the-clouds women. The current “best practice” of writing proposals and publications is disadvantaging many people – mostly, but not exclusively, women.
What is the take on that? Are women (or “female writers”) hampered by the way they are talking? Should we talk “more manly” in order to be more successful? Is all this simply the result of the self-selection of the man-dominated world science is right now? Or is this just the way science works?
There is, unfortunately, no simple answer to that. A small step is to be aware of the problem. And again, the question we must ask ourselves is:
Do we want to play the game or change the rules?
*Since none of the considered references took non-binary gender options into account I only talk about male and female language in this article.
 Xia. “Gender Differences in Using Language”. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 3(8), 2013, doi:10.4304/tpls.3.8.1485-1489 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/478d/8227a766d8d836664f52fec37b8b34c03491.pdf
 Lerchenmueller, Sorenson, Jena. „Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study”. BMJ 2019;367:l6573, doi: 10.1136/bmj.l6573 https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/367/bmj.l6573.full.pdf
 Kolev, Fuentes-Medel, Murray. “Is Blinded Review Enough? How Gendered Outcomes Arise Even Under Anonymous Evaluation”. NBER Working Paper No. 25759, 2019 https://mitsloan.mit.edu/sites/default/files/2019-06/w25759.pdf