By Steven G. Mehta

Since March is National Women’s History Month, I thought it would be interesting to add a small contribution to the information regarding gender differences.  Vickie Pynchon has been dedicating this month in her blog to writing about gender bias that continues to exist in the profession.  Her theme has been to show that bias can be demonstrated in many ways in which we may not think about.  Well another example of that potential bias is in the way we identify names.  Think of the traditional introduction in a wedding.  I now introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe.  Well a recent study shows that putting male names before female names in writing is a remnant of sexist thinking. This is the finding of a study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology by Dr Peter Hegarty and colleagues of the University of Surrey.

Dr Hegarty said: “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 like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. 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 this might be.”

The researchers investigated the modern written context of the internet. Using 10 popular British boys and girls names and 10 popular American boys and girls names, the team searched the internet using each of the possible male-female name pairs as search terms, for both the male name first — i.e. ‘David and Sarah’, and then female name first — ‘Sarah and David’.

The results of this search found that for the British name pairs, the male-first name pairings accounted for 79 per cent of the mentions, and female-first pairs only 21 per cent. For the American names this was 70 per cent of the mentions were male-first and 30 per cent for female-first.

Dr Hegarty said: “These results were found to be statistically significant, and support the idea that gender stereotypes still affect the written language. It has been argued that the male-first effect isn’t down to sexism but that it is due to phonological attributes of male names, or because male names come more readily to mind as they are popular and familiar. We therefore carried out further studies to investigate whether the male-first finding was a gender stereotyping effect.”

One hundred and 21 people were asked to imagine a heterosexual couple who were either ‘quite traditional and who conform strictly to gender scripts about how the two genders should behave’ or ‘non-traditional who deviate radically’. They were then asked to write down five name-combinations for their imaginary couple.

Participants named the imagined ‘traditional couples’ men-first more often than chance, but this effect was not seen for the naming of ‘non-traditional’ couples.

In a third study, 86 people were asked to write down names of an imagined lesbian or gay couple. Participants were then asked to assign attributes such as annual earnings, interest in fashion, interest in sport and physical attributes to each individual — for example Simon is physically stronger than John. Participants assigned significantly more of the masculine attributes and fewer of the feminine attributes to the person they named first.

Dr Hegarty said: “The results of our studies suggest that people tend to put men, or male qualities, before women. As this is a remnant of the sexist grammar of the 16th century, it would seem that psychologically, we are still sexist in writing.”

Gender discrimination can be very pervasive yet hidden in front of our faces.  It is important to understand that bias can and does exist.  Only then can we begin to combat these biases that we may have.

Research Source:

British Psychological Society (BPS) (2010, March 12). Men, not ladies, first: We’re still sexist in writing. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from