They/them: Tel Aviv University Adopts Non-gendered Plural Pronouns on All Exams

Decision follows study showing that masculine pronouns on exams drag down female students’ scores while use of plural raises scores without hurting those of male students

Or Kashti
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Students at Tel Aviv University, June 9, 2019.
Students at Tel Aviv University, June 9, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Or Kashti

Tel Aviv University announced Wednesday that all of its exams would be worded from now on in the plural rather than in the masculine singular, after studies have shown that the use of the Hebrew masculine singular form on tests lowers female students' grades.

In a letter to university department heads, Prof. Eyal Zisser, the university’s vice rector, wrote that the use of the masculine singular on exams “affects female students’ ability to succeed on exams,” and “there is a dramatic disparity in women’s test results, which benefits men and hurts women.”

The change in discourse on exams came at the request two months ago by members of the Israel Young Academy. The group, which is affiliated with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, approached all of the country’s universities on the matter, and each is said to be taking steps of various kinds to implement it.

Research by Dr. Tamar Kricheli-Katz of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Tali Regev of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya found that the use of feminine terminology raised the scores of female students but lowered male students’ grades. On the other hand, the use of plural language improved female students’ score but didn’t affect the scores of their male counterparts.

Kricheli-Katz and Regev made the findings based on the results of a math test taken by 1,000 participants drawn from a representative sample of the Israeli population. In tests using the masculine singular, the average grade for women taking the exam was 15 percent lower than that of the male test takers. When the feminine singular was used, the disparity between the performance of men and women was cut by a third.

When women were given tests with masculine singular references and men given exams with feminine singular ones, the researchers found that both men and women expended less effort in taking the tests, as reflected in the amount of time that they took to complete the exams. When the masculine form was used, the women were more likely to report feeling that “science is a subject for men.”

Entrance to the Sackler Health Sciences Complex on Tel Aviv University campus.
Entrance to the Sackler Health Sciences Complex on Tel Aviv University campus.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In addition, immigrants to Israel who learned Hebrew at a relatively late age were less affected by the gender usage on the exams than those for whom Hebrew was their native language.

In another experiment, about 1,000 other participants answered a reading comprehension test that yielded similar results. “The research demonstrates the ways in which stereotypes come into play through the use of language and the influence of languages and language characteristics on our behavior and thought,” Kricheli-Katz said.

According to Prof. Zisser, the Tel Aviv University vice rector, the research findings “have shown that women will gain from changing the language of the exams to the plural while for men, as there is no practical difference. Since this involves a step with minimal cost and a proven benefit, the [country’s university] rectors were asked to change the language of the exams.”

For her part, Prof. Liad Mudrik of the Israel Young Academy said: “There is broad agreement over the need to change the language in exams, and every university has chosen to implement it in its own way. We hope that it is part of a broader change that also includes the Education Ministry and [high school] matriculation exams.”