The concepts of "person" or "people" are not gender-neutral despite being gender-neutral terms, according to a new study. An analysis of over 630 billion words published online shows that these concepts are more often used when talking about men than when talking about women.
In a series of three studies, published in Science Advances, a team of psychology and linguistics researchers looked at the linguistic context of the words "person" and "people" and words used for men and women.
"People" and "person" were used more similarly to words used for men ( such as “he” or “male”) than words associated with women (such as “she” or “female”). The researchers report that the difference is by a significant margin.
"Many forms of bias, such as the tendency to associate 'science' with men more than women, have been studied in the past, but there has been much less work on how we view a 'person', " lead author of the paper Dr April Bailey, from New York University, said in a statement.
"Our findings show that even when using gender-neutral terms, we prioritize men over women," added co-author Adina Williams, a research scientist at Meta AI and a graduate of NYU's doctoral program in linguistics.
The work was conducted using an artificial intelligence algorithm that can look for associated words. The authors provide this example: If you were to read the phrase "Each morning, Joe boiled water in the balak for tea,” even if you didn’t know what "balak" meant, you’d likely link it to a kettle because the words "boiled", "water", and "tea" usually go together with "kettle".
This is the linguist context. And it showed a clear bias in the 630 billion words taken from almost 3 billion web pages by the non-profit Common Crawl in May 2017. And it’s not just about the words "person" and "people" specifically.
In a second and third study, the research didn’t look directly at the words "person" or "people" but instead looked at common descriptors and common verbs used for people. They were designed to see if describing what people are and what people do also come with a bias towards men – the results suggest they do. The consequences of this bias extend beyond linguistics.
"Conceptions of 'people' form the basis of many societal decisions and policymaking," Andrei Cimpian, a professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and the senior author of the paper, explained. "Because men and women are each about half of the species, prioritizing men in our collective idea of a 'person' creates inequity for women in decisions based on this idea."
Writer Marie Shear said back in 1986 that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” This study points out that we ought to write more about women as people too.