The brain interprets gendered job titles paired with the wrong gender as a discrepancy, making the reader fumble, fixate, and reread.
You are an editor. Your writer has used the title foreman even though the foreman mentioned is a woman. You propose foreperson, but the writer insists that—gender equality aside—foreperson is such a strange word that it would be better to use foreman and clarify the gender afterward. You still want to use foreperson, but you wonder if the writer is right about the confusion. As it turns out, words like foreman confuse your readers anyway.
The 2011 study “How Readers Spontaneously Interpret Man-Suffix Words: Evidence from Eye Movements,” Manizeh Khan and Meredyth Daneman used eye-tracking to compare -man titles to gender-neutral titles. Most studies on gendered titles have been “off-line” (i.e., the subjects have time to consider their answer) (353). However, eye-tracking does not give the reader time to consider their answer, so it catches their immediate reaction. Khan and Daneman wanted to use eye-tracking to see where the reader fumbled. Would the reader fumble when a -man job turned out to be held by a woman? Would the reader still fumble if the job title were gender-neutral?
They found that when participants read text that mentioned a female chairman, the first read-through took an average of 50 milliseconds longer than when the chairman was male. Also, for a female chairman, the participants had to make a second pass; they then spent 40–100 more milliseconds rereading “chairman” and “female” than they spent on male chairmen or male/female chairpersons. Khan and Daneman (2011) conclude that the longer rereading time came from readers assigning a male to the masculine title chairman, and by the “repair processes initiated following the detection of the inconsistency” (359).
Khan and Daneman’s 2011 study indicates that readers assume masculine titles refer to a man. As editors, we try to use neutral titles to avoid gender bias; this study suggests that gendered titles also cause the reader to fumble, fixate, and reread.
As you edit, your job includes clearing out grammatical structures that read as inconsistencies. You want to make the text easy to read on the first pass. Stumbling or rereading, even for a few milliseconds, will both drop reading comprehension and raise processing time. This study indicates that if you want your text to read smoothly, you should stick with gender-neutral job titles. Even if that gender-neutral job title is something like foreperson.
To understand more about gendered titles and how they affect different age groups, read Khan and Daneman’s full article:
Khan, Masnizeh, and Meredyth Daneman. 2011. “How Readers Spontaneously Interpret Man-Suffix Words: Evidence from Eye Movements.” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 40 (5–6): 351–66. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-011-9173-3
—Anna Freeman, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY KRISTIN HARDWICK
Find more research
Try reading Duffy and Kier’s 2004 eye-tracking study to see how stereotypes can cause trouble even when the titles are gender-neutral: “Violating Stereotypes: Eye Movements and Comprehension Processes When Text Conflicts with World Knowledge.” Memory & Cognition 32: 551–59. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03195846
Consider also a 1978 study by Moulon et al. that showed readers are much more open to female referents when the term “he or she” is used: “Sex Bias in Language Use: “Neutral” Pronouns That Aren’t.” American Psychologist 33 (11): 1032–36. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.33.11.1032