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Ladies second: are we sexist in writing?

March 16, 2010
Courtesy of the British Psychological Society
and World Science staff

Ro­me­o and Ju­li­et. An­to­ny and Cle­o­pat­ra. Por­gy and Bess. Jack and Di­ane. What do these cou­ples well-known from his­tory, stage or song have in com­mon?

In all, the male name usu­ally ap­pears first.

There’s some­thing worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing here, some sci­en­tists be­lieve. While ex­cep­tions cert­ainly aren’t lack­ing (see: Bon­nie and Clyde), a group of re­search­ers say they have ex­pe­ri­men­tally con­firmed that at least in English-speaking lands, and in writ­ing, there’s a ten­den­cy to name the man first. Moreover, the sci­ent­ists say, tests sug­gest the phe­no­me­non is rooted in his­tor­i­cal sex­ism, as other ex­plan­a­tions seem to fall short.

Romeo and Juliet, paint­ing by Sir Frank Dick­see, 19th cent­ury


“In the 16th cen­tu­ry, nam­ing men be­fore wom­en be­came the ac­cept­a­ble word order... be­cause of the think­ing that men were the wor­thier sex. This gram­mar has con­tin­ued with 'Mr. and Mrs.,' 'his and hers' and the names of roma­ntic cou­ples,” said Pe­ter He­g­arty of the Uni­vers­ity of Sur­rey, U.K. His study with col­leagues on the sub­ject ap­pears the March 15 is­sue of the Brit­ish Jour­nal of So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

“While the orig­i­nal sex­ist ide­as be­hind this gram­mar are no long­er ac­cept­ed, we wanted to in­ves­t­i­gate wheth­er the sex­ist hab­it of male names com­ing be­fore female names still holds true and the psy­cho­log­i­cal rea­sons why.”

The team con­ducted a probe on the In­ter­net. Us­ing 10 pop­u­lar Brit­ish boys’ and girls’ names and 10 pop­u­lar Amer­i­can boys’ and girls’ names, they searched the In­ter­net us­ing each of the pos­si­ble ma­le-female name pairs as search terms, for both the male name first – such as “David and Sarah” – and then female name first – as in “Sarah and David.”

The male was list­ed first 79 and 70 per­cent of the time, for the case of Brit­ish and Amer­i­can names re­spec­tive­ly, the re­search­ers found. The num­bers were “sta­tis­tic­ally sig­nif­i­cant, and sup­port the idea that gen­der stereo­types still af­fect the writ­ten lan­guage,” He­g­arty said.

How­ev­er, “it has been ar­gued that the ma­le-first ef­fect is­n’t down to sex­ism but that it is due to pho­no­lo­g­i­cal [sound] at­tributes of male names, or be­cause male names come more readily to mind as they are pop­u­lar and fa­mil­iar,” he added.

To test these ex­plana­t­ions, He­g­arty and col­leagues con­duct­ed fur­ther ex­pe­ri­ments.

They asked 121 peo­ple to im­ag­ine a het­er­o­sex­ual cou­ple who were ei­ther “quite tra­di­tion­al” in fol­low­ing typ­i­cal ma­le-and-female roles, or who “de­vi­ate radic­ally” from these. The par­ti­ci­pants were then asked to write down five name-combina­t­ions for their im­ag­i­nary cou­ple. Par­ti­ci­pants tended to list the male name first for the im­ag­ined “tra­di­tional cou­ples,” but not for the “non-traditional,” the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found.

Next, 86 peo­ple were asked to write names of an im­ag­ined les­bi­an or gay cou­ple. They were then asked to as­sign at­tributes such as an­nu­al earn­ings, in­ter­est in fash­ion, in­ter­est in sports and phys­i­cal traits to each per­son: for ex­am­ple Si­mon is phys­ic­ally stronger than John. 

Par­ti­ci­pants as­signed sig­nif­i­cantly more “mas­cu­line” at­tributes and few­er “fem­i­nine” ones to the per­son they named first, said He­g­arty.

“It would seem that psy­cho­log­ic­ally, we are still sex­ist in writ­ing,” he went on. But he added that the ef­fect tends to oc­cur only among cou­ples we don’t know well. “When peo­ple ad­dress greet­ing cards to cou­ples, for ex­am­ple, they of­ten put the per­son that they know best first, wheth­er female or ma­le.”


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Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Jack and Diane. What do these three couples, real or fictional, have in common? In all three, the man’s name is usually stated first. There’s something worth investigating in that, some scientists believe. While the phenomenon isn’t invariable (see: Bonnie and Clyde), a group of researchers said they have experimentally confirmed that at least in English-speaking countries, and in writing, there’s a tendency to name the man first. It’s a remnant of sexist thinking, say Peter Hegarty and colleagues of the University of Surrey, U.K., whose study on the subject appears the March 15 issue of the British Journal of Social Psychology. “In the 16th century, naming men before women became the acceptable word-order to use because of the thinking that men were the worthier sex. This grammar has continued with “Mr. and Mrs.,” “his and hers” and the names of romantic couples,” said Hegarty. “While the original sexist ideas behind this grammar are no longer accepted, we wanted to investigate whether the sexist habit of male names coming before female names still holds true and the psychological reasons why.” The team conducted a probe on the Internet. Using 10 popular British boys’ and girls’ names and 10 popular American boys’ and girls’ names, they searched the Internet using each of the possible male-female name pairs as search terms, for both the male name first – such as “David and Sarah” – and then female name first – as in “Sarah and David.” The male was listed first 79 and 70 percent of the time, for the case of British and American names respectively, the researchers found. “These results were found to be statistically significant, and support the idea that gender stereotypes still affect the written language,” Hegarty said. However, “it has been argued that the male-first effect isn’t down to sexism but that it is due to phonological [sound] attributes of male names, or because male names come more readily to mind as they are popular and familiar,” he added. To test these explanations, Hegarty and colleagues went further. They asked 121 people to imagine a heterosexual couple who were either “quite traditional” in following typical male-and-female roles, or who “deviate radically” from them. The participants were then asked to write down five name-combinations for their imaginary couple. Participants tended to list the male name first for the imagined “traditional couples,” but not for the “non-traditional,” the investigators found. Next, 86 people were asked to write names of an imagined lesbian or gay couple. They were then asked to assign attributes such as annual earnings, interest in fashion, interest in sports and physical traits to each person: for example Simon is physically stronger than John. Participants assigned significantly more “masculine” attributes and fewer “feminine” ones to the person they named first, said Hegarty. “It would seem that psychologically, we are still sexist in writing,” he went on. But he added that the effect tends to occur only among couples we don’t know well. “When people address greeting cards to couples, for example, they often put the person that they know best first, whether female or male.”