Breaking the Binary : Attitudes towards and cognitive effects of gender-neutral pronouns

Abstract: For a long time, Swedish only had two third-person singular pronouns: hon [‘she’] and han [‘he’]. Following several publications using the gender-neutral pronoun hen to refer to its characters, a debate article in a national newspaper proposed expanding the Swedish pronouns with hen. This proposal ignited a nation-wide debate on the use of a gender-neutral pronoun and its potential consequences. Proponents of hen believed that hen would make the language more gender-fair by making gender less salient, and by having a pronoun for nonbinary gender individuals. Opponents believed hen would confuse children and be trivial for achieving gender equality. This response shows that hen challenges beliefs on what language should look like, how gender is defined, and how gender should be represented in language. In this thesis, I have documented beliefs about hen. I have mapped the initial resistance, and found underlying motivations for different types of criticism. In two experimental studies, I tested whether common arguments in the debate are supported by empirical evidence, and whether hen can affect the way others are perceived.Study I documented the content of the criticism of hen. As a background and coding scheme I used research on criticism of past gender-fair language initiatives, such as the replacing of generic ‘he’ with ‘he or she’. I found that the criticism of hen was largely the same as in the 1970s and 1980s. Subsequently, I generated four dimensions of underlying motivations that characterize criticism of gender-fair language. These dimensions of criticisms can be considered and addressed in different ways when implementing and researching gender-fair language.Study II tested whether hen indeed is more distracting in written communication than hon or han. Participants read sentences in which hen referred to role nouns that varied in how strongly they were associated with a gender. The results indicated that hen had a small processing cost compared to hon or han, and there was no difference between lexically gendered or stereotypically gendered role nouns. The common argument that hen is a strong distractor in written communication was thus not supported by these findings. Study III examined how pronouns influence gender categorization and the memory recall of a face. The results indicated that participants were more likely to categorize a gender-ambiguous face as a woman when presented with a feminine pronoun, and that they spent more time looking at feminine faces than masculine faces in the memory task. The opposite was found when the gender-ambiguous face was presented with a masculine pronoun. Encoding a gender-ambiguous face with hen partially eliminated the gender categorization effect. The results show that binary pronouns activate binary gender categorization and that gender-neutral pronouns can reduce such categorization. The findings in this thesis provide insights into the early stages of the implementation of a gender-neutral pronoun, and its potential to affect social cognition. It shows that criticism of hen is fueled by a set of ideological convictions and practical concerns, which it shares with criticism of other gender-fair language initiatives. In addition, hen leads to criticism of breaking the woman-man gender binary. This thesis provides early evidence for the potential of gender-neutral language, such as hen, to reduce biases in social cognition.