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Gendered Languages May Play a Role in Limiting Women’s Opportunities (Modern Diplomacy)

January 24, 2019

From the article:

In many developing countries, women face significant barriers to their equal participation in society. While some of these barriers are easy to see, a new line of research is uncovering a surprising and less obvious possibility: the very structure of certain languages may shape gender norms in a way that limits women’s opportunities.

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But Ozier and his colleague Pamela Jakiela of the Center for Global Development wanted more conclusive evidence, and in a new paper they document the results of a journey to identify the grammatical gender structure of 4,334 languages, together accounting for 99 percent of the world’s population. To achieve this linguistic feat, they drew not only on existing sources of information like the World Atlas of Language Structures, but also deep dives into textbooks and academic research as well as the knowledge of World Bank staff in offices as far flung as Fiji.

Ozier and Jakiela were able to take this newly assembled body of data and relate it to outcomes for women around the world—specifically female labor force participation, educational achievement, and gender norms.

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Drawing on data from the World Values Survey, Ozier and Jakiela found that those who speak a gendered language are more likely to agree with statements like “On the whole, men make better business executives than women do” or “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, women are just as likely as men to hold these attitudes, suggesting just how pervasive the effect of language is on beliefs.

Not satisfied with the wide-lens analysis of countries around the world, Ozier and Jakiela also closely scrutinized a handful of countries—Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, and India—where both a gendered and non-gendered indigenous language is widely spoken. What they found confirmed their broader findings: gendered languages are consistently associated with lower female labor force participation. In these countries gendered languages are also associated with lower rates of primary and secondary school completion.

Related Experts

Pamela Jakiela
Senior Fellow