Who are you looking at?
Look at one of Dr Kesebir’s studies in close-up. It involves 647 participants she recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online work marketplace where people post HITs, or Human Intelligence Tasks, and people seeking work volunteer to complete them. These people were shown one of two pictures and asked to describe in one or two sentences what they saw.
One picture (below/right/left) showed a woman and a man in an office setting, complete with suit jackets, computer and business-type books. The second picture was created from the first in Photoshop, by pasting the heads of the woman and man from the first picture onto another picture: this time, they were depicted in a primary-school classroom. It was otherwise identical. A statistical analysis of the results found that where people’s descriptions included conjoined phrases (for instance: “A man and a woman are having a meeting in an office”), they followed a strong pattern.
In the office setting, 92.4% of conjoined phrases in participants’ responses positioned the man before the woman. In the classroom setting (a stereotypically female context), 85.7% of the conjoined phrases placed the man first. In other words, female-first conjoined phrases were almost twice as likely to be produced when describing the same two people in a classroom (14.3%) than when they were pictured in an office (7.6%).
In addition, as Dr Kesebir predicted, people showed a strong tendency to reproduce the prevalent word order - “man and woman”. She was surprised by how many people still used the male-first pairing, even when describing the primary school classroom. “It was above my expectations. This made it very clear to me that two different forces are at play here: the pull toward repeating prevalent patterns and another, weaker force, which is the tendency to mention first the presumably more relevant party in the context.”
She next wondered whether these word order choices matter: “At the beginning I was interested in how these patterns look and what explains them, but then as I got deeper into the research the question became, does it matter? Does it have real consequences for people’s understanding of the social world?” So, in another of Dr Kesebir’s studies, she invited participants to write a story about either “a businesswoman and a businessman” or “a businessman and a businesswoman”. Dr Kesebir said “when you start with, ‘businesswoman’ vs ‘businessman’, it’s a very subtle manipulation. You’re just changing the order of two words. I was really curious to see whether a different word order would change people’s perceptions.” She predicted that whichever was mentioned first in the phrases would feature more centrally in the story.
Her hunch proved correct: across all the stories, the businessman was significantly more likely to be mentioned before the businesswoman, with 68.3% of the stories first mentioning the man and 31.7% the woman. But the instructions affected the outcome: the ratio of stories mentioning the businessman first was 87.5% for stories written about “a businessman and a businesswoman”, whereas it was 49.4% for stories in which the instruction was to write about “a businesswoman and a businessman”.
“What this study shows is that the order of the two genders in a conjoined phrase has communicational consequences,” says Dr Kesebir. “When the woman was mentioned before the man in a business context, participants constructed an imaginary world in which the woman was more central and received more attention. These findings provide further evidence that the order of conjoined words is perceived to indicate relevance.”