Gender Gap in Pronouns

By Jen Doll:

There’s a new study that reveals that shifts are being made in the way we write. For a research project led by Generation Me author and San Diego State psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, with W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile of the University of Georgia, the three combed through 1.2 million texts in the Google Books archive, tracking pronouns by gender in works published from 1900 to 2008. Their survey of those books (note: the archive contains 4 percent of books ever published) found that, as Hillel Italie writes in a piece for the AP, the “gender pronoun gap” has changed. Yes, add this to your file on gender byline and media coverage gaps and How To Tumblrs for Women; there is a “gender pronoun gap” as well.

From Twenge’s paper: “Between 1900 and 1945, 3.5 male pronouns appeared for every female pronoun [she, her, herself, hers], increasing to 4.5 male pronouns during the postwar era of the 1950s and early 1960s. After 1968, the ratio dropped precipitously, reaching 2 male pronouns per female pronoun by the 2000s. From 1968 to 2008, the use of male pronouns decreased as female pronouns increased.” Italie writes, “The ratio had shrunk to 3:1 by 1975, and less than 2:1 by 2005.”

What’s the significance of this? Twenge explains in her paper that “the gender pronoun ratio was significantly correlated with indicators of U.S. women’s status such as educational attainment, labor force participation, and age at first marriage as well as women’s assertiveness, a personality trait linked to status. Books used relatively more female pronouns when women’s status was high and fewer when it was low. The results suggest that cultural products such as books mirror U.S. women’s status and changing trends ingender equality over the generations.” Or, more simply, the rise in all of those indicators—as women married later, had careers, and became more independent and assertive—correlated to a rise in the use of female pronouns in writing.

In a statement, Twenge said the shift in language evidenced by the research is “one of the largest, and most rapid, cultural changes ever observed,” and that it reflects “the incredible increase in women’s status since the late 1960s in the U.S.”

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  • Confirms what I’d long suspected, and it is interesting the outputs of such a global trend over a relatively long time period. This is an encouraging trend as more gender-inclusive language has better overall outcomes for everyone – and reflects better the realities of life. Really interesting to read this article… thanks.

  • Mike M

    God’s looking in on this and She’s probably thinking “about time. Whatever that is.”

  • Marshall

    Interesting that use of he and his has declined by about 3 times as much as use of she and her has risen. Where have the missing pronouns gone??

  • I wonder whether the “missing pronouns” (@Marshall) are because of the use on ‘they’. In British English at least, there is, I think, a growing use of ‘they’ as gender neutral. It is certainly what I would use.

  • It may be correlated with social trends, but it’s caused by people complaining about the gender-neutral use of ‘he’ as ‘not-inclusive’ and people compensating by using they or she as a new default.

    “Books used relatively more female pronouns when women’s status was high and fewer when it was low. ”

    to really test that hypothesis, we’d need to lower the status of women again and see if the pronouns follow suit.

  • @Paul Duggan:

    “to really test that hypothesis, we’d need to lower the status of women again and see if the pronouns follow suit.”

    Not necessarily. An interesting study could be made of books written by and for the self-describing “patriarchalists” in the church.