'Sexist' thinking still present in writing

Letters that begin "Dear Sir/Madam" and references to "Mr and Mrs" are both remnants of "sexist thinking", according to psychologists.

In the written word at least, men still come first - just as they did centuries ago, say researchers.

The claim is supported by the results of scientific studies, they argue.

Dr Peter Hegarty, who led a team from the University of Surrey, said: "In the 16th century, naming men before women became the acceptable word order to use because of the thinking that men were the worthier sex.

"This grammar has continued with 'Mr and Mrs', 'his and hers' and the names of romantic couples like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

"While the original sexist ideas behind this grammar are no longer accepted, we wanted to investigate whether the sexist habit of male names coming before female names still holds true and the psychological reasons why this might be."

The psychologists first conducted an investigation on the internet using 20 popular British and American boys' and girls' names.

The researchers searched for cross-gender name pairings which placed either the male or female name first, for instance "David and Sarah" or "Sarah and David".

For British name pairs, male-first pairings accounted for 79% of the mentions and female-first 21%. In the case of American names, 70% of mentions were male-first and 30% female-first.

"These results were found to be statistically significant, and support the idea that gender stereotypes still affect the written language," said Dr Hegarty.

Next, 121 people were asked to imagine a heterosexual couple who were either "quite traditional and who confirm strictly to gender scripts about how the two genders should behave," or "non-traditional who deviate radically".

They were then invited to write down five name combinations for their imaginary couple.

Participants named "traditional couples" men-first more often than by chance. This effect was not seen for "non-traditional couples".

In a third study 86 people wrote down names of an imagined lesbian or gay couple.

They then had to assign attributes such as earnings, fashion or sport interests, and physical characteristics to each individual.

The volunteers assigned significantly more masculine and fewer feminine attributes to the person they named first.

The research is published today in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Dr Hegarty said: "The results of our studies suggest that people tend to put men, or male qualities, before women. As this is a remnant of the sexist grammar of the 16th century, it would seem that psychologically we are still sexist in writing."