A groundbreaking study by Assistant Professor Allison Archer has found that male leadership titles such as “president” or “advisor” reinforce stereotypes that link men to leadership and undermine the connection between women and leadership.

Allison Archer

Allison Archer, assistant professor in the UH Department of Political Science and Valenti School of Communication

Debates over the use of masculine or gender-neutral words to describe leadership positions, jobs and rewards affect almost every area of ​​society, from business to politics and the media. Recently, local politicians have considered changing titles such as ‘alderman’ or ‘councillor’ to their gender-neutral counterparts (e.g. ‘council member’). While some dismiss calls for gender-neutral titles as mere acts of political correctness, proponents argue that masculine language is not a gender-neutral substitute for “person” or “leader.” Instead, male language can undermine women’s leadership by reinforcing harmful stereotypes that positions of power are reserved for men.

Allison Archer, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, sought to understand whether masculine language had this effect. Working with Cindy Kam of Vanderbilt University, the researchers investigated what happens when masculine or gender-neutral language is used to describe leadership positions — specifically, titles of “president” versus “president.” “. Little research had previously analyzed the role of gendered language in reinforcing sexist stereotypes, which may contribute to the persistent gender gap in leadership, the researchers say.

Two experimental studies were conducted to understand the effect of male leadership titles. The work is published in The Leadership Quarterly. In the first study, participants read the story of a hypothetical “chairman” or “chairman” of a paperclip company, a state legislative ways and means committee, or a sociology department in a university. The researchers deliberately chose a gender-neutral name for the leader: Taylor or Pat Simmons. Respondents were told about Simmons’ leadership position, age, and length of time at their institution. They also received information about the company, committee or department. After reading this brief paragraph, people were asked to write, in five full sentences, what a typical morning might look like for President or President Simmons.

“The pronouns used in the participants’ sentences revealed their assumptions about Simmons’ gender. Our findings first reflect the stereotype that leadership positions belong to men: When reading about President Simmons, just over half of respondents assumed the leader was male, even though the gender of Simmons was unspecified,” Archer said.

Reading about Chairman Simmons, study participants became After likely to assume that the leader was a man only in the chair condition. “The results suggest that masculine language further accentuates stereotypes of men in leadership positions,” she added.

In the real world, unlike the first experiment, the gender of a leader who uses a male leadership title is generally known. The second study looked at what happens when people know the gender of a leader who calls himself either “president” or “president.” Study participants read a brief paragraph about a new head of a state legislature’s ways and means committee. The vignette leader was either referred to as “President” or “President” and was called either Joan or John Davenport. Here, the Chief’s gender was perfectly clear from Davenport’s first name and the pronouns used to refer to Davenport. After reading the paragraph, participants shared their opinions about the leader and then were asked to remember the name of the new leader. They could choose between John, Joan, Joseph, Josie and Don’t Know.

“In another demonstration of the power of gendered language and unconscious stereotypes, we found that male titles affect the memories of female and male leaders differently,” Kam said.

The title “president” increased recall accuracy for male leaders, but undermined recall accuracy for female leaders: a woman who poses as “president” is less likely to be correctly remembered compared to a man who does the same. A woman who poses as “president” is more likely to have her leadership wrongly attributed to a man.

In both studies, researchers tested but found no evidence that participants’ gender made a difference: female participants were no less sensitive to the effects of male titers than male participants. This could be because gender stereotypes are transmitted and learned on a societal level (through television, books, and other forms of socialization) and can be applied unconsciously and unintentionally.

“Overall, we found that male leadership titles really matter – they affect assumptions and memories of the gender of leaders. Titles like ‘president’ increase people’s assumptions that men hold leadership positions and decrease memories of women holding such positions of power,” Archer said. “This suggests that gender-neutral and male leadership titles are not simply synonymous with each other. Male leadership titles reinforce stereotypes that link men to leadership and undermine the link between women and leadership.

-This story originally appeared on the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Characters and Background Blog