About the research

This research about hen and gender fair language is a collaboration between researchers from Stockholm University, University of Gothenburg and Lund University with research funds from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond) samt the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (Forte).

Who is hen? (Financier: the Swedish Research Council, VR)

Has hen come to stay in Swedish? Several languages have gender-neutral pronouns, but Swedish seems to be the first language in the world which combines three pronouns; two traditionally gender specific and a new, gender-neutral pronoun: hen. The aim of the project is to study this occurring linguistic change. Which factors contribute to positive or negative attitudes toward the usage of a gender-neutral pronoun? Do these attitudes differ from neutralized linguistic changes in general? What is it about hen that evokes such strong emotions? How does the brain cognitively process the word hen? Does hen steal attention away from the message sought to be conveyed? The project will proceed for four years, and will also measure changes over time.

Language reflects and affects thoughts, emotions, and values. A more inclusive language can therefore be an important step towards increased equality. Since the 1970s, there are ongoing reforms at different levels in order to achieve a more gender fair linguistic usage. For example, the generic masculinum, using han (he) as a reference to people in general, have been replaced with a more balanced han/hon(he/she). Professional labels have also changed and in Swedish the strategy has often been neutralizing the term rather than having dual labels – one masculine and one feminine. However, a neutralization does usually mean that the former masculine form is still being used. Hence, using heninstead is a strategy to avoid this male bias and also challenges the gender dichotomy.

The proposition to use hencan be categorized as either generic or gender transcending. Generic hen can be used in descriptions of people in general or when the gender is unknown or irrelevant for the content in a message. Gender transcending hen can be used about individuals who do not identify within the gender dichotomy as heor she, or as a total replacement of he or she. Attitudes towards hen are affected by if one considers a generic pronoun necessary as an addition to balanced forms, and whether one believes it necessary to challenge the gender dichotomy.

A survey study is used to describe individuals’ attitudes towards a gender-neutral linguistic usage in general and towards hen specifically. Both dimensions of usage of hen are investigated: both the generic usage and the gender transcending usage. Background variables included are gender, age, sexism, linguistic skills, sexual orientation and gender identity. It is, for example, investigated whether proficiency within genderless languages (e.g. Finish) could have an impact, as well as attitudes towards equality. The questionnaire respondents consist of a representative selection of the population, and is performed in the beginning and at the end of the project in order to measure changes over time.

The project also includes psychological experiments which aim to measure explicit and implicit attitudes as well as cognitive processes related to hen. By studying eye movements when participants read texts with or without henwe are able to study how hen is perceived in relation to different roles (for example mother, parent, nurse), as well as whether hen is perceived as generic or as gender transcending. This method has previously been used in order to measure gender stereotypes regarding heor she. We also intend to include bilingual individuals (Swedish/Finnish) to be able to compare the processing between groups with differing experience of gender-neutral pronouns in singular third person. Through this study we can gain knowledge about implicit reactions towards the word, the cognitive cost of processing, and in what way context and previous experiences affect cognitive processes. The project also studies explicit mental representations of gender which are activated depending on if gender-neutral pronouns or other neutral paraphrases are being used (e.g. if a person is described as “the person” or as hen). We seek to answer the question of ifhen activates less male bias, and activates images of individuals outside the binary gender system. In addition, we study whether hen requires additional cognitive capacity which may affect understanding and memory of a text.

Understanding how language reflects and affects thoughts and perceptions of gender is important in order to be able to use these resources in the work towards equality, but also in order to gain a deeper understanding how words affect a reader’s or a receiver’s cognitive processes and understanding of a text. This project is a unique opportunity to study if the gender-neutral pronoun hen can affect social constructions related to gender, and how this changes over time.

The faces of hen – a gender-neutral pronoun’s influence on gender categorization and facial cognition (Financier: The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, RJ)

In 2015, ‘hen’was included in the dictionary by the Swedish Academy. ‘Hen’ can be used both to refer to persons outside the gender binary and people whose gender is irrelevant or unknown. Previous research have shown that gender is a primary category when assessing others and that gender is perceived as dichotomous rather than as a continuum; even though people in real life show a broad variation of appearances and gender expressions. One question for the project to investigate is whether ‘hen’ can reduce dichotomous gender categorization. The second question is whether ‘hen’ can reduce gender stereotypes in personassessments. Previous studies have shown that joy is more quickly discovered in a female face, whilst aggression is more quickly discovered in a male face. Studies have also shown that androgynous faces which are labelled as female or male are assessed according to gender stereotypes even though there are no clues in the facial structure. Even memory is affected by which gender labels are assigned to a face. The project is carried out by a series of experiments in order to test if and how 1) ‘hen’ can reduce binary gender categorization (female/male); 2) emotions are perceived differently depending on if a face is presented as ‘she’, ‘hen’, or ‘he’; 3) the choice of pronoun when presented with a face affects the assessment of personality; 4) memory is affected by facial appearance and the choice of pronoun.                         

The importance of language for equality at work (Financier: the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, Forte)

The aim of the project is to investigate the relationship between organizations’ linguistic usage and equality. The starting position is that usage of so called gender fair language contributes to increased equality within organizations and in extension, a less gender segregated working life. Equality is defined here as having an equal gender division within different professions, and that employees experience equality and non-discrimination.

Perceptions about gender, equality and gender structures can be expressed explicitly through choice of words, but also implicitly by subtle and to a large extent unconscious linguistic nuances. Therefore, we ask the following questions:

  • In what way is equality and inequality created, maintained and communicated by organizations through language use?
  • Can a more gender aware language use contribute to a more equal working life?