Aug 27 • 4 min read

People are often expected to dress, work and behave with what is “appropriate” to their assigned sex at birth. But how do the languages we speak have an impact on gender representation in innovation and business?

Amir Shoham, associate professor of finance and international business at the Fox School of Business, studies the impact of linguistic gender marking on gender roles in society and business. He explains the origin of linguistic gender marking to be both cognitive and ancestral.

“There is a large body of literature that shows that language impacts our cognition. Think about somebody that speaks Spanish. They always distinguish between female and male words. That impacts their view of society,” explains Shoham. “Then there is our ancestral culture where, thousands of years ago, some had a very strict division of labor between the genders. This eventually evolved into the language. It’s a combination of this ancestral culture reinforced by cognition.” 

Language affects society. But how does it affect a culture’s or country’s innovation in business? 

Shoham, along with Alex Berman, PhD ’20, and Ram Mudambi, professor of strategic management, found that languages with a higher emphasis on gender contribute to gender inequality in innovation. By conducting a global analysis, they studied several languages and compared the emphasis on gender with the representation of gender in innovation.

They identified languages with more defined gender roles based on four gender-related linguistic structures. “These structures reflect different features of grammatical gender and capture different aspects of the intensity of male-female distinctions in a language,” Shoham explains. 

In countries with higher linguistic gender marking like Poland and Norway, they found that fewer women are involved in innovation activities than in societies with lower gender marking like Finland, despite their generally different population size, location and socioeconomic structures.

For example, prior research shows that a diverse management board with female representation is more likely to focus on monitoring performance, which ends up incentivizing better data-driven decisions. 

“Gender marking in language impacts the number of females on a board of directors. We found fewer females on boards in places where we have more defined gender roles,” says Shoham.

They also found that countries with higher gender marking in their language produced fewer patents from females, lowering the overall innovation activity. 

“We studied the patents from different countries and saw who were using the patents and how many of the patents were cited,” says Shoham. “We found that if you have more gender marking in the language, you have fewer patents. And it makes sense because from a macro level, you’re utilizing less than 50% of your society.”

Whether there is less female representation in the boardroom or inventing new products, the lack of inclusion slows down innovation for the country as a whole.

Their study, “Linguistic Structures and Innovation: A Behavioral Approach,” is under review at the Journal of International Business Studies.

This analysis has been a hot topic for linguistic researchers in the past decade, but is getting more attention in business disciplines. Berman, who is currently an assistant professor of management at St. John’s University, used his doctoral dissertation to examine how linguistic and cultural contexts relate to global innovation outcomes.

“The effects of gender marking are still the subject matter of a big discussion. Scholars across fields from management to economics are starting to really look at this theory closer,” explains Berman. “If grammatical differences in language affect human behavior in general, then it is likely that they affect managerial behaviors.”

The researchers show that gender roles reinforced in language contribute to a nation’s innovation performance. With lower levels of inclusion for half the population, they argue that this has a real impact in a competitive global market. So what can be done to bridge this gendered gap?

“If you’re in a society that has more gender roles, you could react to that by implementing policies. Understand that market forces, that the society by itself, won’t solve this issue,” says Shoham. 

As societies around the world become more accepting of gender-nonconforming people, Shoham acknowledges the potential impact of language on inclusion—and the barriers that remain. 

“It would make an impact because that means there are societies even more split between gender roles and some that are even more flexible and more open to gender. The issue is, there are not many data sets for those who are nonbinary at this time, so it would be difficult to study. But in the future, it would definitely be looked into,” says Shoham.

BoardroomDiversityEconomicsFemale RepresentationFinanceGender RepresentationGender RolesInnovation ManagementInternational BusinessLinguistic Gender MarkingManagement BoardNonbinary