Four Dimensions of Criticism Against Gender-Fair Language
Hellen Petronella Vergoossen
&Emma Aurora Renström
&Marie Gustafsson Sendén
#The Author(s) 2020
The gender-neutral third-person pronoun singular hen was recently introduced in Swedish as a complement to she (hon)andhe
(han). The initiative to add hen initially received strong criticism. In the present study, we analyzed 208 arguments from 168
participants with critical attitudes toward hen.WeusedBlaubergs’(1980) and Parks and Roberton’s(1998)taxonomiesofcritical
arguments against past gender-fair language reforms in English in the 1970s and 1990s as a basis for coding the arguments. A
majority of arguments (80.7%) could be coded into existing categories, indicating that criticisms of gender-fair language
initiatives are similar across different times and cultural contexts. Two categories of arguments did not fit existing categories
(19.3%): gender-neutral pronouns are distracting in communication and gender information is important in communication.
Furthermore, we established four overarching dimensions that capture assumptions and beliefs underlying gender-fair language
criticism: (a) Defending the Linguistic Status Quo (39.4%), (b) Sexism and Cisgenderism (27.4%), (c) Diminishing the Issue and
Its Proponents (26.9%), and (d) Distractor In Communication (6.3%). These dimensions of criticisms should be considered and
addressed in different ways when implementing gender-fair language.
Keywords Gender .Gender identity .Gender-fair language .Gender-inclusive language .Gender-neutral pronouns .Hen .
Language reforms .Pronouns .Sexism
Gender-fair language strategies often face resistance. Negative
attitudes have been documented against specific gender-fair
reforms, such as the replacement of the masculine generic he
with the paired form he/she (Blaubergs 1980), guidelines for
non-sexist language (Parks and Roberton 1998), and the in-
troduction of a gender-neutral pronoun (Gustafsson Sendén
et al. 2015;Bäcketal.2015,2018; Lindqvist et al. 2019).
Past research has discerned several arguments that are used
against adopting gender-fair language. Blaubergs (1980)
developed a taxonomy of arguments against gender-fair lan-
guage in the wake of the proposal in the 1970s to replace the
masculine generic he with he or she. Blaubergs analyzed a
sample of arguments in newspapers articles, scientific journals
and other media, and established eight categories of argu-
ments: Cross-Cultural, Language Is a Trivial Concern,
Freedom of Speech/Unjustified Coercion, Sexist Language
Is Not Sexist, Word Etymology, Appeal to Authority,
Change Is Too Difficult, Inconvenient, Impractical or
Whatever (hereafter shortened to Change Is Too Difficult),
and It Would Destroy Historical Authenticity and Literary
Works (hereafter shortened to Historical Authenticity). Parks
and Roberton (1998) extended Blaubergs’taxonomy based on
undergraduate’s arguments against gender-fair language with
four more categories: Sexism Is Acceptable, Hostility Toward
Proponents of Change, Tradition, and Lack of Understanding.
In Swedish, the gender-neutral third-person pronoun
singular hen has been introduced as a complement to
she (hon)andhe(han) and is used as both a pronoun
to refer to individuals with non-binary gender identities
and as a generic pronoun (SAOL 2014). Hen’s introduc-
tion received a lot of media attention in 2011, and in
2014 the pronoun was included in the Swedish dictio-
nary. At first, there were heated debates in the media, in
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article
(https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01108-x) contains supplementary
material, which is available to authorized users.
*Hellen Petronella Vergoossen
Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Frescati Hagväg
14, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg,
Department of Psychology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
Department of Social Sciences, Södertörn University,
Published online: 6 January 2020
Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
universities, and among laypeople (Milles 2013). In
contrast to past reforms that added gendered (often fem-
inine) forms to make women more salient, a gender-
neutral pronoun reform reduces gender information.
The present study examines whether arguments against
the gender-neutral hen are similar to arguments from
past gender-fair language reforms using feminization
strategies in other cultural contexts. To this aim, the
taxonomies of criticism developed by Blaubergs (1980)
and Parks and Roberton (1998)wereusedtocategorize
the arguments against the gender-neutral pronoun hen.
Gender-Fair Language Planning
Feminist scholars have promoted gender-fair language for
over half a century. In the 1970s, feminists considered the
generic use of masculine pronouns and masculine occupation-
al titles problematic and “both a symptom and a source of
fundamental androcentrism”(Braun et al. 2005,p.3).
Empirical studies have shown that masculine generics are an-
drocentric because they more readily evoke mental images of
men (Gastil 1990; Moulton et al. 1978). This connotation was
for example shown in German where the generic masculine
forms of roles and occupations were associated with men
more frequently than with women (Stahlberg et al. 2001).
Furthermore, masculine generics influence attitudes and
behavior, especially among women. For example, women
were less motivated to apply for a job when masculine ge-
nerics were used in a job advertisement (Bem and Bem
1973). Women also felt less belonging, motivation, and iden-
tification with a job when masculine generic pronouns were
used in a mock interview compared to gender-fair alternatives
(e.g., he or she;one; Stout and Dasgupta 2011). Social judg-
ments can also be influenced by masculine generics. Women
applying for jobs were judged as less suitable for a high-status
leadership position when masculine forms were used in com-
parison to paired forms (Horvath and Sczesny 2015).
To counter the negative effects of masculine generics,
many languages have introduced gender-fair alternatives
to masculine generics throughout the late twentieth cen-
tury. These initiatives have focused on creating either
paired forms that include references to both women
and men (called feminization because the feminine form
is added) or gender-neutral forms (called neutralization
because gender information is reduced; Sczesny et al.
noun forms is “he or she”(Willis and Jozkowski 2017).
Gendered pronouns can also be paired as “he/she,”“s/
he,”“he (she),”or they can be alternated throughout a
text. Critiques of paired pronoun forms include awk-
wardness in use, that constructions like “s/he”cannot
be said out loud, and that there are no comparable
grammatical case forms, such as “his or hers”
(Madson and Hessling 1999). Even organizations that
deter the generic use of “he,”such as the American
Psychological Association, discourage the repeated use
of paired forms stating that “the repetition can become
tiresome”and that forms such as he/she or (s)he are
“awkward and distracting”(American Psychological
Paired forms also suffer from an androcentric effect called
“male firstness”(Willis and Jozkowski 2017)because“he or
she”is more common than “she or he.”Male firstness has also
been documented for personal names (Hegarty et al. 2011)
and in scientific articles that present gender differences
(Hegarty and Buechel 2006; Willis and Jozkowski 2017). In
addition, paired forms emphasize gender as a dichotomy by
explicitly denoting gender as constituting the binary catego-
ries woman (she) or man (he), excluding individuals with non-
binary gender identities (Ansara and Hegarty 2016; Hyde
et al. 2018). Hen is used as both a pronoun to refer to individ-
uals with non-binary gender identities or as generic form
(SAOL 2014). In this way, gender-neutral pronouns are dif-
ferent from paired language reforms because they make non-
binary identities visible in language and decrease the dichot-
omous perceptions of gender (Wayne 2005).
The Introduction of Hen
The introduction of hen generated a heated debate in 2011
(Bäck et al. 2015,2018; Lindqvist et al. 2016; Gustafsson
Sendén et al. 2015), despite Sweden being an egalitarian
country with a history of adopting feminist values and lan-
guage reforms (Milles 2011). Past studies have shown that
egalitarianism is related to a more positive opinion of
gender-fair language (Formanowicz et al. 2015)andagreater
use of gender-fair language (Hodel et al. 2017). However,
during the debate in Sweden, the response was mostly nega-
tive. In a study documenting the attitudes in a representative
sample collected in 2014 in Sweden, 55% of the participants
expressed negative attitudes toward hen whereas only 14%
were positive (Bäck et al. 2018).
The present study focuses on the contents of arguments that
Swedish people use against gender-neutral pronouns. To this
aim, we use the categories of arguments against gender-fair
language established by Blaubergs (1980)andParksand
Roberton (1998) to investigate whether their taxonomies are
also valid for gender-fair language reforms that introduce
gender-neutral pronouns (neutralization in contrast to femini-
zation) in a different time and cultural context. If the argu-
ments fit past taxonomies, this continuity might indicate that
people are more averse to gender-fair language change than to
the content of the reforms themselves.
329Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
Participants and Procedure
In the present study, arguments against hen were the focus.
Therefore, the sample included participants who were familiar
with hen and expressed at least one argument against using
hen. First, participants read a definition of hen:“Hen could be
used when it is not necessary to specify a gender, for example
to replace ‘he/she,’or for individuals that don’twanttocate-
gorize themselves as she or he.”Subsequently, they described
in a free-text response why they did or did not want to use hen.
Participants (n= 168 Swedish speaking; M
=30.18, SD =
12.08, range = 18–72) provided 208 arguments against using
hen. Most participants (88.7%, n= 149) provided one argu-
ment, whereas a minority (11.3%, n= 19) provided multiple
critical arguments in their response. The analyses focus on the
208 arguments rather than participants.
Participants were recruited on the university campus of a
large university in Sweden in 2014 (paper-and-pencil ques-
tionnaire)and through social media and other onlineplatforms
in 2015 (online survey). They completed the study without
compensation. Participants indicated their gender in a free-
text response to avoid normative gender categorizations
(Ansara and Hegarty 2014; Lindqvist et al. 2019b), with
54.2% (n= 91) indicating woman; 40.5% (n=68),man; and
5.4% (n= 9) not responding.
The study was completed in accordance with national
guidelines on ethical research (Swedish Research Council
2017). In accordance with these guidelines, participants were
informed about their voluntary and anonymous contribution
and their possibility to quit the survey at any point without
giving any reasons for quitting. They were also informed that
results are presented on aggregated levels with no possibility
to extract personal information. Next, participants gave their
informed consent and were forwarded to the questionnaire.
After answering the questionnaire, participants actively sub-
mitted their responses. A formal ethical approval was not
mandatory for this type of research because it did not include
any biodata nor did it intend to affect the participants physi-
cally or psychologically. It also did not involve any handling
of sensitive data as described in the Swedish data protection
The presentation of the coding procedure and results follow
guidelines outlined by Chatfield (2018) for publication of
qualitative research in Sex Roles. To examine the content of
the criticism of the gender-neutral pronoun hen in Sweden, we
used a coding scheme based on Blaubergs (1980)andParks
and Roberton (1998). The initial coding scheme included 12
categories of arguments against gender-fair language. One
category was excluded (Lack of Understanding) because it
contained participants’judgments of why others are critical
of gender-fair language, which was not the focus of the pres-
ent study. This initial coding scheme is reported in the online
The 208 negative arguments were coded through thematic
analyses (Braun and Clarke 2006). The approach to the the-
matic analyses was both deductive and inductive. The deduc-
tive approach involved coding the arguments into the original
categories, whereas the inductive approach involved the cate-
gorization of the arguments that did not fit into the original
categories. First, two of the authors separately coded the argu-
ments into the 11 original categories. The inter-coder reliabil-
ity for coding into the original categories was indexed with
Krippendorff’s alpha (Hayes and Krippendorff 2007) and was
.89 for all categories taken together (range = .57–1). The av-
erage agreement between coders for coding arguments into
the separate original categories ranged from 33.33% (this cat-
egory consisted of only 3 arguments) to 100% (M
80.34%, SD = 23.4). The 15 arguments disagreed upon were
categorized after joint discussion. This resulted in 45.7% (n=
95) of the arguments being placed in the original categories.
Second, the same two authors jointly subjected the argu-
ments that were partly matched to original categories (35.1%,
n= 73) to a second round of analysis, in accordance with how
Parks and Roberton (1998)modifiedBlaubergs’(1980)tax-
onomy. The goal was to decide whether these arguments
could be included in the original categories if any of the cat-
egory labels and category definitions were modified. The out-
come from this procedure led to the inclusion of all arguments
in modified original categories.
Third, the arguments that did not match any of the 11 orig-
inal categories (19.2%, n= 40) were subjected to an inductive
thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) by the same two
authors. This led to the creation of two new categories and an
updated coding scheme. The titles and definitions of the new
categories were based on the explicit content of the comments
grouped into this category. Subsequently, a third author coded
all the arguments into the final coding scheme with 13 cate-
gories. In the third round ofanalyses, the Krippendorff’salpha
for the agreement between the third rater and the first two
raters for the categorization of all comments was .98. The
average agreement between coders for coding arguments into
each of the original categories ranged from 66.67% to 100%
=94.88%, SD = 11.08). The four arguments
disagreed upon were categorized after joint discussion.
Finally, when all the comments were categorized, we used
an inductive thematic analysis to organize the categories ac-
cording to their latent content. To establish the themes, we
went beyond the explicit content of the categories and
searched for underlying ideas, assumptions, and ideologies
that shaped the semantic content of the data (Braun and
330 Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
Clarke 2006). All authors were involved in this inductive
The coding of the 208 negative arguments against hen into the
categories showed that a majority of the arguments (n=160,
76.9%) fit the categories in the original taxonomies from past
reforms. Two original categories were modified: Sexism Is
Acceptable was modified into Sexism and Cisgenderism Are
Acceptable and Change Is too Difficult into Change Is Too
Difficult or Unnecessary. About a fifth of the arguments
(19.7%, n= 41) were coded into two new categories: Gender
Identification Is Important (13.0%, n= 27) and Distractor in
Communication (6.3%, n= 13). Two categories from the orig-
inal taxonomy did not occur in this sample: Cross-Cultural
and Historical Authenticity.
The inductive analyses of the latent content of the catego-
ries resulted in four dimensions of criticism of gender-fair
language: (a) Defending the Linguistic Status Quo (39.4%
of arguments, n= 82), (b) Sexism and Cisgenderism (27.4%,
n= 57), (c) Diminishing the Issue and Its Proponents (26.9%,
n= 56), and (d) Distractor in Communication (6.3%, n=13).
The dimensions and their underlying categories are presented
in Table 1with percentages and examples.
Defending the Linguistic Status Quo
The first dimension captures a variety of categories that justify
the current linguistic norm and the preference to keep the
current linguistic system unchanged. Over a third of the argu-
ments (39.4%, n= 82) fit into this dimension. This dimension
included four categories: (a) Change Is Too Difficult or
Unnecessary, (b) Appeal to Authority, (c) Word Etymology,
and (d) Tradition. Change Is Too Difficult was modified to
include the argument that change is not necessary. Comments
about hen being unnecessary were very common, for exam-
ple: “Idon’t see the need for it”and “We already have a
neutral word for gender non-specified situations: ‘person’.”
Responses about the difficulty of use included: “Icannotget
used to it”and “I have still not grown accustomed to the word
and it is awkward to say.”Of the arguments, 33.7% (n= 70) fit
into this category.
The Appeal to Authority (3.8%, n=8) and the Word
Etymology (1.0%, n= 2) categories rarely occurred and
contained a variety of references to authorities. Some partici-
pants stated that they did not want to use hen because they
found hen’s definition unclear or because they thought it
lacked proper case forms. In the two comments in the Word
Etymology category, it was argued that a generic use of hen is
not proper because hen was introduced as a pronoun for peo-
ple with trans or non-binary gender identities. The ambiguity
in these arguments is that they are negative toward the generic
use of hen, but not negative toward using hen for people who
use it as their personal pronoun. Like the Change Is Too
Difficult or Unnecessary category, the two arguments that fit
into the Tradition category (1.0%, n= 2) showed a preference
for the status quo. However, instead of referring to authorities,
they used the tradition of using certain gendered words as
justification for using them. For example, one argument stated
that Santa Claus had always been a “he”and that should not
Sexism and Cisgenderism
The second dimension represents beliefs about gender and the
implications of the language reform. The term “cisgenderism”
was added to sexism and refers to the ideology that condemns
people’s own designations of their genders and bodies (Ansara
and Hegarty 2014). A fourth (27.4%, n= 57) of the arguments
fit this dimension which comprises the modified category
Sexist and Cisgenderist Language Is Acceptable (14.4%,
n= 30) and the new category Gender Identification Is
Important (13.0%, n= 27). In past taxonomies, criticism of
gender-fair language included classical and hostile forms of
sexism (e.g., “men are superior to women”). These forms of
sexism were absent in the current sample, but we found sim-
ilar hostility against people with non-binary identities. Trans
identities were explicitly or implicitly neglected in the content
of the comments (“Idon’t see that a few hurt people should
change language”). In other types of comments, the existence
of people outside the binary system was neglected. According
to these comments, pronouns for individuals with non-binary
gender identities are unnecessary because there are no indi-
viduals who are not either a woman or a man: “Idon’t see the
need for a gender-neutral pronoun, because biologically you
are either a man or a woman”or “Girls are girls, boys are
boys.”Instead of an acceptance of masculine dominance be-
ing expressed in language, these comments express an accep-
tance of binary gendering in language. Therefore, we expand-
ed the category Sexist Language Is Acceptable to Sexist and
Cisgenderist Language Is Acceptable.
The new category Gender Identification Is Important
emerged from comments focusing on the importance to use
gender labels in communication about others and concerns
that gender-neutral pronouns lead to depersonalization. This
category also comprises dichotomous beliefs about gender.
However, instead of explicitly denying the existence of indi-
viduals with non-binary identities, this category contains ar-
guments about gendered information being important in com-
munication (“I think one’s gender is part of who we are, and
that is why I like saying he or she”and “one often wants to
know someone’sgender”). In this way, the arguments implic-
itly neglect non-binary gender identities.
331Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
Table 1 Dimensions with subcategories, their definitions, examples, and frequencies
Dimensions Definitions Example quotes % of arguments
Defending Linguistic Status
Participants provide arguments to keep language unchanged 39.4% (n=82)
Change Is too Difficult and
The current linguistic term is too deeply rooted in the language,
the suggested change is too devious, or breaking a language
habit is too difficult to justify implementing the change.
“It doesn’t feel natural to use it, neither in writing or
“It is somewhat unnecessary.”
“I think that in everyday language she/he is too deeply
[hen] to become ‘common’language.”
“There are other words.”
“Personally, I prefer to avoid using hen by reformulating the
without using he/she.”
Appeal to Authority Authorities in the field of language, such as linguists or dictionaries
but also teachers and family members, have a final say in what is
the correct way to use language.
“Write Swedish correctly instead.”
“It is confusing because it has an unclear definition.”
Word Etymology The original meaning of the word is the real meaning of the word,
regardless of modern interpretations.
“The word hen was initially used to describe the gender
of a person who didn’t consider themselves to be male or
Thus, hen is not a gender-neutral word, but rather the
That is why I think it
feels wrong to use hen.”
Tradition Language is the way it is and has been this way a long time,
and it should remain unaltered.
“For example, Santa has traditionally been a ‘he.’I don’tsee
reason to change that.”
Sexism and Cisgenderism Participants indicate gender hierarchies where cisgender
identities or men are considered of greater importance.
Sexism and Cisgenderism Are
Men are superior to women, so it is acceptable if language
reflects this. In this study, we expanded this category with: there
are only two genders, and ultimately everyone belongs to one of the
two; there are differences between women and men, and language
should reflect this.
“Ireallydon’t like it, because I think that men should be
so we can turn each other on, play the game with each
Without it, life would be very boring.”
“There is only two, he and she”
Gender Identification Is
New category. Gender-neutral language is impersonal and objectifying;
the wishes of those that want to be referred to with a gendered pronoun
must be respected; gender is important for one’s identity; gender is
important in communication.
“The person talked about becomes some sort of object that
don’t feel you can relate to. Impersonal, weird,
“I personally don’t want to be labeled with hen.”
Diminishing the Issue and Its
Participants devalue or ridicule the word or the proponents of the reform 26.9% (n=56)
Hostility and Ridicule The topic of sexist language is ridiculous and potentially harmful.
Proponents of gender-fair language are malicious.
“Reminds me of höna [hen in English]”
“It is ugly”
332 Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
Tab l e 1 (continued)
Dimensions Definitions Example quotes % of arguments
“It is just a ridiculous and childish expression.”
Freedom of Speech/
The proponents of linguistic change attempt to control or censure
freedom of speech through, for example, publication guidelines.
“There is a queer feminist, politically correct agenda behind
that tries to erase gender. And this hen is one way.”
“It feels like an unpleasant and authoritarian imposition
Sexist Language Is a Trivial
People should focus on more important forms of societal injustice
than language, for example, on the “real”physical and economic
oppression of women.
“I don’t think a word leads feminism forward.”
“The problem is not in the words “he”and “she”but in the
of women. There we need change.”
Sexist Language Is Not Sexist Sexist language is not sexist when there is no intention
to be sexist. When words are perceived as sexist, the
bias is not in the language used by the speaker, but in
the person listening.
“If I had to describe a construction worker, I think of a man,
and then I would
have said ‘he.’But I don’t think this is something
demeaning toward women
or that this means that women can’tbeoraren’t allowed
to be construction
workers. It just feels more natural.”
Distractor in Communication Participants indicate that using hen takes attention from the message 6.3% (n=13)
New category. The word is too loaded; it is too much of a statement; it detracts from the
message; when using it, it may
invite hostility from opponents of gender-neutral language.
“I don’t use the word because there are such strong opinions
about it. Whether the
opinions are positive or negative, the person gets stuck on
of the word hen
and it takes focus from the rest you’re trying to
“Hen becomes a statement by a person instead of fitting in
333Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
Diminishing the Issue and its Proponents
The third dimension includes disparaging reactions to both
gender-fair language and the people advocating for its use. A
fourth of the arguments (26.9%, n= 56) fit this dimension. This
dimension comprises four original categories: (a) Hostility and
Ridicule (12.5%, n= 26), (b) Freedom of Speech/Unjustified
Coercion (9.6%, n= 20), (c) Sexist Language Is a Trivial
Concern (3.8%, n= 8), and (d) Sexist Language Is Not Sexist
(1.0%, n= 2). Common to these categories is the opinion that
sexist language is a non-issue and that proponents of gender-
fair language miss the larger picture of gender equality. The
largest category within this dimension, Hostility and Ridicule,
contains comments that undermine linguistic change by being
hostile or diminishing: “It is totally ridiculous to use that word,”
“It reminds me of a hen [referring to the English meaning of the
word hen],”“It’s frivolous,”and “Seriously, I get irritated.”
Clearly negative words were common in this category (e.g.,
ugly, nonsense, annoying, stupid, fussy).
Most of the ridiculing arguments in the first category target
the word itself rather than the people using it. However, in
other categories the arguments also target proponents of hen.
For example, the Freedom of Speech/Unjustified Coercion
category included criticism that focused on proponents of
the linguistic change threatening or coercing others to change
their linguistic habits. Examples of typical arguments are:
“Sweden has ended up as a self-limiting totalitarian state
where political correctness hides everything in society”and
“It disturbs me that some abuse it, or even become aggressive
if you decide to distinguish between the genders.”Some crit-
icism was milder but suggests that gender equality had gone
too far. An example of such a comment is: “I can feel [gender
equality] has gone a bit too far if, for example, we will have to
divide toilets for he, she and hen.”
The third category Sexist Language Is a Trivial Concern
included arguments that express the idea that a word does not
make a difference or that there are other more important steps
to reach gender equality. The fourth category Sexist Language
Is Not Sexist similarly included arguments that denied that
sexist language negatively affects anyone. An example of
such a comment is: “[Using gendered language] does not nec-
essarily mean that certain characteristics or attributes are
forced on a person.”
Distractor in Communication
The fourth dimension focused on participants’concern that
the use of hen may lead to a less effective communication or
even reprimands because hen is seen as a political statement.
This theme does not concern the content or the implications of
hen, but rather the reactions from others to the new word. In
total, 6.3% of the arguments (n=13) fit into this dimension.
For example, participants mentioned that hen could be
distracting: “The reader will get stuck on the use of the word
hen and it takes focus from the rest of what one is trying to
say/write.”This category is similar to comments that diminish
the issue and its proponents because it contains a “shoot the
messenger”attitude. The difference is that the participants
express concern that they themselves might become the target
of hostility and ridicule when using hen because hen is per-
ceived as a political statement: “Idon’t want to use it at work
during for example a presentation because there are many that
have strong opinions about the word and I don’t want it to take
the attention from the rest of the presentation.”
The present study investigated whether criticism against
gender-neutral pronouns in Sweden fit into taxonomies based
on criticism of other gender-fair language reforms that aimed
to make women more visible in English language contexts.
The results showed that a majority of the arguments against
the use of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen could be
categorized into existing taxonomies of criticism of gender-
fair language (Blaubergs 1980; Parks and Roberton 1998).
This similarity is noteworthy because the hen-reform differs
from the reforms central in past studies in that hen removes
gender information instead of adding paired gendered forms.
This finding indicates that despite the differences in context
and intentions of the gender-fair linguistic reforms, the con-
tents of criticisms largely remain the same.
In addition to validating the work by Blaubergs (1980)and
Parks and Roberton (1998), we established four dimensions of
beliefs on gender and language that underlie criticism of gender-
fair language reforms. The broadest dimension included argu-
ments that defend the linguistic status quo. This theme reflects
people’s tendency to be generally negative about anything that is
new and to prefer to keep things the way they are (Bäck 2013;
Bäck and Lindholm 2014;Jostetal.2004). This phenomenon is
called status quo bias (Jost et al. 2004; Samuelson and
Zeckenhauser 1988). For instance, studies have shown that peo-
ple preferred a candy that ostensibly has been sold a long time as
compared to if it was presented as a relatively new candy
(Eidelman et al. 2010). There is a similar resistance toward
changes in language, where studies have found that new words
and expressions are described as “ugly”or examples of “bad
language”(Andersson 2001; Kotsinas 1996).
Some of the participants in the current study did not oppose
the use of gender-neutral expressions per se (e.g., they were
positive toward using terms like “the person”), but specifically
opposed the use of hen. This indicates that these participants
prefer existing words and may therefore overestimate whether
words such as “the person”evoke gender-neutral or gender-
balanced mental representations. In fact, such supposedly neu-
tral words often carry a male bias (Bailey and LaFrance 2017).
334 Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
For example, in a recruitment situation, the supposedly neutral
“the applicant”was found to have a male bias, whereas hen
did not (Lindqvist et al. 2019). It is possible that people who
express criticism with this underlying theme may be more
prone to change their attitudes when hen loses its novelty or
when made aware of the shortcomings of already existing
The dimension Diminishing the Issue and Its Proponents
included the strongest negative attitudes and affect toward
gender-fair language. Criticism in this dimension targets both
the reform and the people advocating for the gender-fair lan-
guage. The hostile comments prevalent in our sample reflect
the heated public debate in the media and in comments on
social media when hen was introduced in 2011 (Wojahn
2015). Criticism within this category may be so strong be-
cause it is rooted in ideology; what is important in terms of
social justice, and what means should be used to attain social
justice. For example, participants may perceive gender-fair
language initiatives as an infringement on their freedom of
speech. They may perceive initiatives like hen as prescriptive
and a form of language policing. They may also relate hen to
other social justice initiatives that they may oppose, such as
initiatives to make public spaces such as toilets gender-neutral
or non-binary inclusive or campaigns for non-binary people to
self-determine their gender in official documentation.
Gender-neutral language may also lead to participants
experiencing their own social identities to be threatened. For
example, past research has shown that people with a strong
female or male gender identity are more negative toward hen
and use hen less often (Gustafsson Sendén et al. 2015).
Challenging social gender identities by introducing a gender-
neutral pronoun may be difficult for people and lead to harsh
reactions (Morgenroth and Ryan 2018). Arguments that di-
minish the issue and its proponents may therefore be based
on a person’s perceived threat of their own social identity.
The theme Sexism and Cisgenderism might also be rooted
in ideology. This theme contained the arguments that gender-
neutral pronouns are unnecessary because there are only two
genders, that gendered language is important for one’s identi-
ty, and that knowing someone’s gender is necessary in com-
munication. The content of this theme aligns with findings of
prejudice against transgender individuals (Tee and Hegarty
2006). One predictor for prejudice against trans individuals,
including individuals with non-binary gender identities, is the
idea that sex and gender are determined by genes, hormones,
and genitals (Tee and Hegarty 2006). Sex/gender is seen as
unchangeable and binary, and transgender or intersex condi-
tions are seen as abnormal. Classical forms of sexism that
typically target women are not as relevant when proposing
gender-neutral pronouns because they do not promote the vis-
ibility of women in language. However, it is possible that
people who hold classical sexist beliefs also have essentialist
beliefs on cisgenderism, similar in the way prejudice toward
one minority group tends to spill over to other groups (e.g.,
generalized prejudice; Akrami et al. 2011). Our study suggests
that criticism against gender-fair language may be rooted not
just in the perception of gender roles in society, but also in
cisgenderism. Whether cisgenderist motivations for being crit-
ical of gender-fair language are easy to change should be
investigated in future studies.
The dimension Distractor in Communication concerns the
motivation to not use gender-fair language because it is
distracting. Arguments in this dimension addressed a motiva-
tion that has not been part of previous taxonomies of
criticism—namely that participants are not necessarily critical
of gender-fair language themselves, but instead are concerned
about whether hen disrupts their communication with others
and about whether other people may judge them when using
hen. In a similar way, the American Psychological Association
(APA) guidelines for authors support gender-fair language, but
also recommend against using paired pronouns as they are
“awkward and distracting”(pp. 74, APA 2009). Linguistic
norms like guidelines and policies are important motivators
for using gender-fair language (Koeser and Sczesny 2014). It
is important that such guidelines are based on empirical evi-
dence, and future research should investigate whether paired or
gender-neutral pronoun forms truly are distracting in commu-
nication. It is also possible that the use of a word that is initially
perceived as distracting or ideologically charged might normal-
ize over time, as has been shown for paired masculine and
feminine professional titles (Horvath et al. 2016).
Limitations and Future Research Directions
Many participants were students, who in general are more
progressive and positive to hen as compared to the wider
Swedish population (Bäck et al. 2018). The distribution of
comments over the different categories and the themes may
thus differ from the general population. A follow-up study
could make use of a representative population to validate the
results found in our study.
Future studies should investigate whether variation be-
tween individuals predict the type of critical arguments that
are used. For example, high levels of sexism may predict
hostile and sexist arguments, whereas a preference for the
status quo may predict arguments concerning the preservation
of the current language and already available words.
Analyzing the dimensions of arguments over time may also
reveal whether arguments with ideological motivations perse-
vere longer than other arguments rooted in other motivations.
Implementors of gender-fair language initiatives should be
aware of the arguments that exist against gender-fair language
to address resistance appropriately. Some arguments are based
335Sex Roles (2020) 83:328–337
on ideological beliefs and values, which might be harder to
change because they are associated with people’ssocialiden-
tities. Other arguments are based on the preference for status
quo or a concern about making a political statement by using
gender-fair language; these objections might change if the
word becomes more common. Each of these underlying mo-
tivations may be addressed in different ways, and some may
be more challenging to address than others. To facilitate the
acceptance of new gender-fair language initiatives, it is impor-
tant to provide knowledge about gender bias in language
(Koeser and Sczesny 2014) and knowledge about variations
in biological sex and gender identities (Hyde et al. 2018), as
well as give people the chance to get used to the word so it
loses its novelty. Guidelines for gender-fair languages for au-
thorities and the media will help make the proposed word
The introduction of the gender-neutral pronoun hen in the
Swedish language has received a lot of criticism. In compar-
ison to past gender-fair language reforms that made women
more salient, this reform attempts to make people with non-
binary identities visible in pronoun use and decreases dichot-
omous perceptions of gender. At large, critical arguments
against using hen were similar to arguments against using
paired forms. Four dimensions captured universal structures
of hesitance to gender-fair language: (a) defending the linguis-
tic status quo, (b) diminishing the issue and its proponents, (c)
sexism and cisgenderism, and (d) gender-fair language being
distracting in communication.
Acknowledgements Open access funding provided by Stockholm
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest This work was supported by the Swedish Research
Council (grant 2014-1150). The authors declare that they have no conflict
Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals All procedures
performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance
with the ethical standards. No animals were involved in the research.
Informed Consent Informed consent was obtained from all individual
participants included in the study.
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