Masculine versus neutral pronoun usage: Effects on self-esteem in adolescents

Karen Mahler, Pace University


The purpose of the present study was to examine the impact of sexism in language, expressed through the use of masculine pronouns as generic forms, on the self-esteem of an adolescent population. While previous research has focused on the imagery and attitudes such language engenders, little has been done to directly assess the impact of linguistic inequity on the evaluations of self worth. Moreover, rarely have subject variables, such as gender-role identity, been taken into account. The use of masculine pronouns as generic forms has repeatedly been shown to imply the exclusion of females, thereby encouraging biased attitudes, and perpetuating stereotyped thought and behavior. One might expect this pervasive message to influence the establishment and maintenance of self-esteem. One might also expect the interpretation of gender reference in language to be related to gender-role identity. The present study surveyed 128 adolescents between the ages of 15-18, sampled from a large suburban high school. The sample was heterogeneous in regards to ethnicity and socio-economic background. Subjects completed a questionnaire which included occupational vignettes containing the pronoun manipulation, a series of ten-item semantic differential self-esteem scales, and a series of 25-item semantic differential gender-role scales. Results indicated that there is no direct and generalizable impact on self-esteem that can be attributed to a single linguistic feature. Rather, the impact of sexism in language is a subtle and complex interplay of language, gender-role, environmental setting, and probably many other variables which were not assessed by the present study. The anticipated relationship between self-esteem and gender role did not occur. The significant findings associated with the breakdown of self-esteem into more discrete domains indicates the necessity of defining this variable more specifically. The findings imply that a more naturalistic examination of sexism in language would be useful in understanding the subtle influences that biased attitudes and behaviors have on the self-experience of adolescents.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Mahler, Karen, "Masculine versus neutral pronoun usage: Effects on self-esteem in adolescents" (1990). ETD Collection for Pace University. AAI9100878.



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