Placing masculine terms before feminine ones can influence the recall of research results

Whether feminine terms are used before or after male terms can influence people’s interpretation of scientific research results, according to a new study in the Journal of Sex Research.

“I often think about words and how language can shape our reality. Persistently placing masculine terms before feminine ones can suggest that men come before women. After reporting high rates of this male firstness bias in peer-reviewed psychological journals, we investigated its potential effects on readers,” said study author Malachi Willis, a PhD student at the University of Arkansas.

In the study, 754 academics read the results of a bogus research article that either presented feminine terms before masculine terms or the reverse. The articles also varied in whether they were about a gender-neutral topic (improving study skills), a feminine topic (weaving a basket), or a masculine topic (changing a car’s oil.)

For example, the female-first gender-neutral article included the sentence “Women had higher concentration levels than men, but women had lower self-efficacy.” The male-first version of the sentence read “Men had higher concentration levels than women, but men had lower self-efficacy.”

Participants who read about the neutral topic with female firstness were more accurate in their recall of the findings, while participants who read about a masculine topic with male firstness were more accurate. For the feminine topic, participants did not differ based on the firstness condition.

The researchers also asked the participants to indicate which gender scored higher on the dependent variable, even though this was not mentioned in the article. Firstness predicted the gender that participants indicated had scored higher. In other words, when masculine terms were mentioned first, participants were more likely to indicate that men had scored higher, but when feminine terms were mentioned first, participants were more likely to indicate that women had scored higher.

“Language matters. For example, people think that ideas presented first are most important. Academic venues that demonstrate male firstness may encourage readers to prioritize and better remember findings about men,” Willis told PsyPost.

The researchers did not find evidence that firstness influenced perceptions about how well written the article was or whether the article was biased.

“In this study, we manipulated the topic of a bogus research article to be neutral, hyper-feminine, or hyper-masculine. This technique had been used in previous research on linguistic sexism, but the overtly gendered topics may have unintentionally negated the potential effect of male firstness on readers’ perceptions of the text,” Willis said.

“Be cognizant of gender biases in your writing,” he added. “Rather than unilaterally presenting men first, be intentional in how you present results by gender; doing so can influence readers to remember the findings that you think are most important. If not for that reason, the APA publication manual proscribes linguistic sexism.”

The study, “Linguistic Sexism in Peer-Reviewed Research Influences Recall But Not Perceptions“, was authored by Malachi Willis and Kristen N. Jozkowski.