“Women are as successful as men in leadership roles.”
“Workers of color perform as well as white workers.”
“Disabled employees are as competent as non-disabled employees.”
These may sound like passionate declarations from people who care about equality at work. But statements like this, even when uttered with the fiercest determination and the best intentions, might actually transmit subtle biases.
The reason? Grammar.
That’s right. Recently published research out of Stanford University’s psychology department suggests that how we talk about equality can make a huge difference in what people take away.
Eleanor Chestnut and Ellen Markman showed participants in their study variations of the same sentence within a paragraph:
- “girls do just as well as boys at math”
- “boys do just as well as girls at math”
- “girls and boys are equally good at math”
- “boys and girls are equally good at math”
Sure, on the surface, the sentences might seem to convey the same idea. But when participants answered a subsequent question about who had more natural ability in math (or didn’t have to work as hard to be good at the subject), they responded very differently depending on which sentence they’d read.
71% of those who read the first sentence said boys were naturally better or didn’t need to put in as much effort at math, but that flipped to 32% for those who read the second sentence. Roughly half of participants who read the third and fourth sentences—52% and 53% respectively—said the same.
The researchers explain the findings with grammar. The first two sentences have what they call a “subject-complement structure,” so that one gender “serves as the reference point and is thus considered more typical and prominent.” In other words, when you say “girls do just as well as boys at math,” it makes it sound like boys are more typically or naturally skilled and are the standard by which girls are judged. The same is true in reverse.
However, the second two sentences use what they call a “subject-subject structure,” which puts both genders on equal footing. Neither group is made to seem like the reference point used to measure the ability of the other group.
If you’re thinking, “I’m an adult who doesn’t talk about boys and girls and math, so I’m in the clear with my communication skills,” here’s where it gets relevant for you.
“Considering that several fields with large gender gaps like computer science and physics value raw talent, statements that imply that boys are naturally more talented could be contributing to women’s underrepresentation,” Chestnut told Stanford News. “To achieve gender equality, we should critically analyze our language so that we can identify and then correct the ways we implicitly reinforce the belief that men are the dominant, higher-status gender.”
So yes, that means teachers and parents should probably opt for “girls and boys are equally good at math” over “girls do just as well as boys at math.”
But it shouldn’t stop there. You can also apply the same idea to the workplace—not only to gender, but also to race, disability, and any other factor.
Try structuring your support for equality in a way that will truly help. To go back to the statements we started with, for example...
Women are as successful as men in leadership roles.
Women and men are equally successful in leadership roles.
Workers of color perform as well as white workers.
Workers of color and white workers perform equally well.
Disabled employees are as competent as non-disabled employees.
Disabled and non-disabled employees are equally competent.
Intentions are great. Especially when those intentions are about creating a better, more diverse, more equal workplace. So make passionate declarations. Just don’t your intentions go to waste when a simple grammar fix could make a big difference.