Although much of the American public expected Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 US presidential election, many people had trouble referring to a hypothetical future president as “she,” a team of linguists and cognitive scientists has found.
Roger Levy, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences, began the work in early 2016 with Titus von der Malsburg of the University of Potsdam and Till Poppels of UC San Diego. Hypothesizing that use of “she” would increase or decrease along with beliefs about who would win, they planned to explore how long it would take for changes to appear, and how much of a boost “she” would experience if a majority of people expected the next president to be a woman.
That boost never materialized. Asked to complete a sentence about the next president, fewer than 10% of those who used a pronoun chose “she,” even once a Clinton victory was strongly expected. (The proportion using “he” dropped from around 40% to 20% over the course of the study, while the proportion using the singular “they” climbed to nearly 60%.)
What’s more, when participants encountered “she” in such a sentence, it cost them about a third of a second in reading time—a substantial disruption. This did not change over the course of the study.
“For months, we were in a situation where large segments of the population strongly expected that a woman would win, yet those segments of the population actually didn’t use the word ‘she’ to refer to the next president, and were surprised to encounter ‘she’ references,” Levy says. He thinks the findings suggest that gender biases regarding the presidency are deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome.