Gendered languages and women’s workforce participation rates

Rajesh Venkatachalapathy writes:

I recently came across a world bank document claiming that gendered languages reduce women’s labor force participation rates. It is summarized in the following press release: Gendered Languages May Play a Role in Limiting Women’s Opportunities, New Research Finds.

This sounds a lot like the piranha problem, if there is any effect at all.

I [Venkatachalapathy] am disturbed by claims of large effects in their study. Their work seems to rely conceptually on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, which is also quiet controversial on its own. I am curious to know what your take is on this report.

He continues:

The cognitive science behind Sapir-Whorf, and the related field of embodied cognition in general is quiet controversial; it appeals to so many people, yet has very weak evidence (see for example, the recent book by McWhorter). This paper seems to magnify this to say something so strong about macroeconomic labor market demographic indicators. I cannot avoid comparisons with Pinker’s hypothesis in his most recent book that enlightenment thought and secular humanistic principles derived from it has been one of the primary drivers of the civilizing process of the Norbert Elias kind or the Pinker kind.

I am not claiming that such macro-level claims can never be justified. For example, I just began reading your academic colleague, economist Suresh Naidu’s recent paper on how democratization in countries causes economic growth. From the looks of it, they seem to have worked hard at establishing their main hypothesis. Maybe, their [Naidu or his collaborators] approach might provide us with additional insight on whether the causal claims of the paper on gendered language and workforce participation is reasonable and defensible with existing data, and with their [the paper’s] data analysis approach. I just find it difficult to imagine how a psychologically weak effect can suddenly become magnified when scaled to level of large scale societies.

After having trained hard to be skeptical of all causal claims over the years, I see what I feel is an epidemic of causal claims popping up in the literature and I find it hard to believe them all, especially given the fact that progress in philosophical causality and causal inference has been only incremental.

My response: I agree that such claims from observational data in cross-country and cross-cultural comparisons can be artifactual, and languages are correlated with all sorts of things. I don’t know enough about the topic to say more.