Debates about using masculine or gender-neutral words to describe leadership positions, jobs, and awards affect nearly all domains of society from business to politics and media. Recently, local politicians have considered changing titles such as "alderman" or "councilman" 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 neutral stand-in for "person" or "leader." Instead, masculine language may undermine women's leadership by reinforcing harmful stereotypes that positions of power are reserved for men.

In our recent article, we sought to understand if masculine language has this effect. We studied what happens when we use masculine versus gender-neutral language in describing leadership positions—specifically, the titles of "chairman" versus "chair." Little research had previously analyzed the role of gendered language in reinforcing gendered stereotypes, which might contribute to the persistent gender gap in leadership. So, we ran two experimental studies to understand the effect of masculine leadership titles.

In the first study, participants read about a hypothetical "chair" or "chairman" of a paperclip company, a state legislative Ways and Means Committee, or a sociology department at a university. We purposefully chose a gender-neutral name for the leader: Taylor or Pat Simmons. Respondents were told about Simmons' leadership position, age, and time spent at their institution. They were also given some information about the company, committee, or department. After reading this brief paragraph, individuals were asked to write, in five complete sentences, what a typical morning for Chair or Chairman Simmons might look like.

The pronouns used in participants' sentences revealed their assumptions about Simmons' gender.  Our results first reflect the stereotype that leadership positions belong to men: when reading about Chair Simmons, a little more than half of respondents assumed the leader was a man even though Simmons' gender was not specified. When reading about Chairman Simmons, study participants became more likely to assume the leader was a man than in the Chair condition. The results suggest masculine language further accentuates stereotypes that men hold leadership positions.

In the real world, unlike in our first experiment, the gender of a leader who uses a masculine leadership title is typically known. Our second study looked at what happens when people know the gender of a leader who goes by either "chairman" or "chair." Study participants read a brief paragraph discussing a new leader of a state legislature's Ways and Means Committee. The leader in the vignette was either referred to as a "chair" or "chairman" and was either named Joan or John Davenport. Here, the gender of the leader 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 recall the name of the new leader. They could choose between John, Joan, Joseph, Josie and Don't Know.

In yet another demonstration of the power of gendered language and unconscious stereotypes, we found masculine titles affect recollections of women and men leaders differently. "Chairman" increased the accuracy of recall for male leaders yet undermined the accuracy of recall for women leaders: a woman who goes by "chairman" is less likely to be correctly remembered compared to a man who does the same. A woman who goes by "chairman" is more likely to have her leadership wrongly ascribed to a man.

In both studies, we tested for but did not uncover any evidence that the participants' own gender made a difference: women participants were no less susceptible to the effects of masculine titles than men participants. This could be because gender stereotypes are transmitted and learned at the societal level (through television, books, and other forms of socialization) and can be applied unconsciously and unintentionally.

Overall, we found that masculine leadership titles really do matter—they affect assumptions about and recollections of leaders' gender. Titles like "chairman" increase people's assumptions that men are in leadership positions and decrease recollections that women hold such positions of power. This suggests gender-neutral and masculine leadership titles are not just synonyms for each other. Masculine leadership titles reinforce stereotypes that tie men to leadership and undermine the connection between women and leadership.

For Further Reading

Archer, A. M. N., & Kam, C. D. (2022). She is the chair(man): Gender, leadership, and language. The Leadership Quarterly.

Epitropaki, O., Sy, T., Martin, R., Tram-Quon, S., & Topakas, A. (2013). Implicit leadership and followership theories 'in the wild': Taking stock of information processing approaches to leadership and followership in organizational settings. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 858–881.

Johnson, S. K., Murphy, S. E., Zewdie, S., & Reichard, R. J. (2008). The strong, sensitive type: Effects of gender stereotypes and leadership prototypes on the evaluation of male and female leaders. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 106(1), 39–60.

McConnell, A. R., & Fazio, R. H. (1996). Women as men and people: Effects of gender-marked language. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(10), 1004–1013.

Allison M. N. Archer is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on news media and politics as well as gender and politics.

Cindy D. Kam holds the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on political psychology, public opinion, and political participation.