他 / 她
Especially in today’s day and age, I was a bit shocked with how quickly I had subconsciously jumped to gendering the neutral-sounding pronoun based on contextual clues without even realising it. I feel for my poor Chinese tutor because partly through every story she would tell me I would jump in to ask if the subject was male or female. Thankfully I’ve let go of this annoying habit because most of the time it doesn’t really matter but it did make me think – what cues was I using to subconsciously gender these characters in her stories?
I created a list of ten sentences, all with certain traits to make each one stand out; job position, the task being done, childcare, aggression, relationship. Not a single sentence gives an indication of the person’s true gender so there is nothing but a single sentence and an action cue for the test taker to cling to.
I built this small experiment out of curiosity knowing that the dataset is in no way large enough but wanting to see what sort of reaction and results I could get. My focus was on either Western or Western-educated individuals who spoke Mandarin above an intermediate level – what would their subconscious gender bias be?
Especially in today’s day and age, I was a bit shocked with how quickly I had jumped to gendering the neutral sounding pronoun based on contextual clues without even realising it.
Another aspect of this survey that put a couple of people out of sorts (cue evil scientist laugh) was that I made it so there is no opt-out option, you must choose whether you believe the subject of the sentence is male or female.
And before anyone jumps on their keyboards to badmouth me about not including other genders, non-binary, etc, I have a few reasons for this. The first is that I don’t want too many variables in my already tiny sample size, in an ideal world I would have hundreds of people to choose from and would be able to do repeat tests, but unfortunately, that was not the case. Secondly, I’m not sure how non-male/female delineation is handled in Mandarin, so if you know please comment below – I am always happy to conduct more experiments!
Please note that my aim was to give somewhat minimal instruction along the lines of;
Hey [insert name here] I am doing this survey for non-native Mandarin speakers, would you be able to take the time to fill it out? The survey is to select if you think the audio subject is male or female since 他/她 sounds the same.
Most of the respondents were friends or friends of friends. The hardest part of the experiment was finding people to take the survey! I now have massive sympathy for people trying to get respondents for their own surveys – it’s a bit like pulling teeth.
Here are the ten sentences I used for the experiment in the Mandarin audio, English, and simplified. For the English denotation of neutral gender, as it is in Mandarin, I’m going to write the italicized ta.
Ta is a computer engineer and works hard every day.
Ta has so many household chores and works hard every day.
Ta went to go pick up the kids after a birthday party.
Ta’s team won first place at the basketball tournament.
Ta is a financial advisor, this year they earned 80,000.
Ta wrote a book that they are proud of.
Everyone loves ta’s cooking.
Ta helps teach their kids math after dinner.
Ta is divorced because they fell in love with someone else.
Ta often yells at their employees.
There are two parts of the results that I will go over, the first being the actual results and the other being the reaction of the survey takers which I found to be much more interesting than the results themselves.
I would say out of ten of the respondents, half of them voiced discomfort at taking the survey – a few respondents said that they felt quite sexist while answering the questions. A few others were uncertain of which choice to make so they went with the most stereotypical.
In my mind, this experiment only scratches the surface of what could be researched. Out of the ten highly educated (and otherwise quite diverse in terms of gender and sexuality), Mandarin speaking respondents, not a single one went against stereotypical norms. Was it because the respondents believed this was the response desired even though there was no pressure to do so? Or did they resort to stereotypical norms as a way to deal with the discomfort? Regardless, it’s easy to say at the end I don’t believe the survey accomplished anything near my original goal, which was to determine the subconscious gender attribution of a native gendered speaker but it certainly made me think.
The results of the survey itself:
Respondents were 17.39% more likely to default to male as the subject of the sentence.
Please note that I used a 90% confidence interval on a two-tailed test so I deemed values falling between the 4-6 range as not significant.
The significant sentences where the subject was attributed to a male subject were
- Ta is a computer engineer and works hard every day
- Ta’s team won first place at the basketball tournament
- Ta often yells at their employees
In this, I see that the traits of aggression, competition, and job title are skewed to be attributed to men.
While the single significant sentence where the subject was attributed to a female subject was
- Ta went to go pick up the kids after a birthday party
In this, the context of childcare is what skewed people towards choosing a female subject.
The rest of the sentences were deemed gender-neutral by the respondents as a group.
I would love to see a survey like this conducted in a professional setting with a large sample size because I know that this would be just the beginning. While the results don’t surprise me, the responses and the amount of discomfort did. I believe that there is so much that can be done in this area!