Language, Cognition and Gender

by Prof Alan Garnham

This summer we published an E-book with Frontiers Media:

Garnham, A., Oakhill, J., von Stockhausen, L., Sczesny, S., eds. (2016). Language, Cognition and Gender. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88919-892-4

The E-book is a compilation of papers from a Special Topic we edited in two sections of Frontiers in Psychology: Language Sciences and Cognition. The Special Topic was, in turn, a showcase for research conducted as part of an EC-funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN), Language, Cognition and Gender in the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013, grant agreement n° 237907), together with a small number of closely related papers submitted in response to a call for papers for the Special Topic.screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-15-54-23

The Frontiers review process is a complex, iterative, one. However, we think that, in the end, we have done a good job of bringing together papers that are not only on related topics but which are, for the most part, by a group of researchers who interacted closely over a period of four years.

The ITN, which ran from 2009 to 2013, was spearheaded by Lisa von Stockhausen (then at the University of Heidelberg) and Sabine Sczesny (University of Bern). We secured funding at the third attempt, so if you are applying for an ITN, and getting positive feedback (but not funding!) it is worth persevering. The ITN included 10 European universities in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, together with 12 associate partners in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The research conducted within the ITN was organized into four work packages, addressing the questions of:

  • how languages shape cognitive representations of gender
  • how features of European languages correspond with gender equality in European societies
  • how language contributes to social behaviour toward the sexes
  • how gender equality can be promoted through strategies for gender-fair language use.

At Sussex the grant funded one Early Stage Researcher (PhD Student, Eimear Finnegan) and one Experienced Researcher (Postdoc, Paolo Canal).

The ITN was inspired by the observation that gender inequality remains a contentious issue in many societies, despite legislative, and other less formal attempts to tackle it. It is perpetuated, in part, by gender stereotyping. It is also an issue of considerable interest to EU policy makers. Furthermore, we know that language contributes to gender inequality in various ways. For example, gender-related information is transmitted through formal and semantic features of language, such as the grammatical category of gender, through gender-related connotations of role names (e.g., manager, secretary), and through customs of denoting social groups with derogatory as opposed to neutral names. Both as a formal system and as a means of communication, language passively reflects culture-specific social conditions. Furthermore, language can also be used to express actively, and can potentially perpetuate, those conditions. Tackling these issues successfully depends on a proper understanding of their cognitive and societal underpinnings, but also on understanding the effects of attempted interventions. It was with these points in mind, that we proposed the ITN, to address a range of questions about language and gender inequality.

The ITN explored these questions both developmentally (across the life span from childhood to old age) and in adults. The contributions to the E-book present work conducted across a wide range of languages, including some studies that make cross-linguistic comparisons. In keeping with ITN LCG’s multidisciplinary approach, the contributors to the E-book include both cognitive and social psychologists and linguists. For the most part the contributions report original research, with a wide range of methods, from surveys to electro-physiological studies. Most of the contributions address questions about either the cognitive representation of gender or the use and effects of gender-fair language. They present a range of complementary studies, which make a substantial contribution to the understanding of these important issues.

Alan Garnham is Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Jane Oakhill is Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex

Lisa von Stockhausen is Professor of Psychology at the Universität Duisburg-Essen 

Sabine Sczesny is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bern

Find out more about our research on Cognitive Psychology.

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