LINGUIST List 6.1598

Sat Nov 11 1995

Sum: Gender and linguistics

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Richard Hudson, SUM: gender and linguistics

Message 1: SUM: gender and linguistics

Date: Fri, 10 Nov 1995 10:10:26 SUM: gender and linguistics
From: Richard Hudson <>
Subject: SUM: gender and linguistics

I posted a query a few weeks ago about the balance of men and women in
linguistics, which generated replies from lots of people including the
following, to whom thanks:

 Robert Beard, Glenn Bingham, Elisabeth Burr, Sherri Condon, Anna
 Morpurgo Davies, Matthew Dryer, Jean le Du, Alice Faber, Chuah
 Choy Kim , Waruno Mahdi, Steve Matthews, Fumi Morizumi, Lynne
 Murphy, Marc Picard, Michel Platt, Reinier Post, Suzan Rogers,
 Gabriella Rundblad, Deborah D. Kela Ruuskanen, Steve Seegmiller,
 David Silva, Margaret J Speas, Falk Yehuda.

Some of these replied to the list directly, but I've included their
replies in the following summary.

1. The facts.

I reported that women outnumbered men among undergraduates by 2 or 3
to 1, and roughly speaking this did turn out to be universal
(confirmed for institutions in Canada, Finland, Germany, Israel,
Japan, Singapore, Sweden, USA, ) except that my correspondents
reported even higher imbalances in favour of women. Everyone seemed to
agree that this was the normal pattern, so we can risk a

GENERALISATION 1: Women outnumber men by at least 2:1 in undergraduate
courses on linguistics.

 However there were some (possibly) instructive exceptions as well:

 a. The MIT undergraduate linguistics program reverses the trend,
with currently about 1 female : 2 male students. (How odd to have MIT
as the exception in an otherwise solid universal!)

 b. At the Univ of Stockholm, and possibly in Swedish
universities generally, the balance is about equal among people who
opt for introductory linguistics courses, but it swings in favour of
women as the level increases. (Interesting, eh?)

 c. At the Univ of Helsinki, an optional course on the discourse
of advertising for Economics and Business students attracts a majority
of males. (I imagine this reflects the balance in Economics and
Business, but it's interesting that so many males opt for this

However, a lot of the correspondents went beyond the undergraduate
figures, to report two further trends:

GENERALISATION 2: At graduate student level, the balance is about
equal or, if anything, in favour of men.

This was confirmed for UK, USA. However some countries continue the
undergraduate trend strongly in favour of women (Finland is the case
reported, but there may be others), so this may be subject to more

GENERALISATION 3: Among academic faculty, and especially at the higher
ranks, the balance is reversed in favour of men.

(Confirmed specifically for Canada and Finland, but I imagine it may
well be true universally; it certainly seems to be true in UK, to
judge by LAGB meetings!).

These three trends have apparently all been confirmed for the USA by
the survey conducted by the LSA Committee on Women in Linguistics,
which is due to report again at the next LSA meeting.

2. Why?

Specifically, why the undergraduate dominance of females?
Correspondents offered a rich range of serious explanations (plus one
which I'm too embarrassed to report!), but plenty of them said they
were baffled. In reporting these explanations I am *not* necessarily
agreeing with them, or their presuppositions! And of course it's quite
likely that more than one expranation could be correct at the same

a. Tradition. Women choose languages at university where men choose
science and business.

b. Irrelevance to jobs. Linguistics is irrelevant to careers
(`impractical'), and women are encouraged to do irrelevant
undergraduate courses; or men are discouraged from doing such
courses. (But interestingly, a side issue was raised about why there
are so few women in *historical* linguistics, where the job market
must be even worse than in other areas of linguistics; and in my own
department, undergraduates on a professional course for speech
therapists are almost exclusively female.)

c. Relevance to language teaching. Linguistics is a training for
school language teachers, who tend to be female.

d. Where linguistics is tied to L2 learning, females predominate
because they're more anxious about their ability in the L2.

e. Linguistics attracts girls who have been steered away from more
traditional sciences but like the scientific approach.

f. Language is generally accepted as `Ok for women' or "women's

g. Specifically *sociolinguistic* topics such as discourse attract
women (at graduate and faculty level as well as at undergrad level)
because they are `more sensitive to language use' and are aware of
social discrimination via language.

h. Women `are more proficient with language than men'.

So there we are. Basically we haven't a clue about the explanation for
one of the most fundamental and robust facts in our subject.
Prof Richard Hudson Tel: +44 171 387 7050 ext 3152

Dept. of Phonetics and Linguistics Tel: +44 171 380 7172
 Fax: +44 171 383 4108
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
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