Hedging and Gender in the STEM Community

Eric Chen, Abbey Mae Gozon, Khoi Nguyen, Paul Vu, Julia Wang

Hedging is an aspect of language that is easy for non-linguists to overlook. These terms are used to apply uncertainty to a statement, to make it seem less assertive. The question we seek to answer is, do women make more use of hedging than men do? Specifically, we seek this in the context of an environment where more is expected of women than of men. In this experiment, we take a look at the presence of hedging in the speech of female STEM students. These participants participate in interviews about the subjects they study, and then afterwards take a short survey in order to determine what it is that the participants believe is the root cause of their own hesitations. The recordings of the interview portions are scanned for hedges that are measured as uncertainty in the participant’s explanations. A numerous presence of which would imply that the speaker is not completely sure that they are correct and are choosing to leave room for themselves to err. This study intends to find out whether or not women hedging more than men contains more substance than is implied by the stereotype.

Introduction + Background

Entering new environments with high expectations can be difficult for anyone. This is especially relevant in academic environments, where imposter syndrome and the resulting stress are abundant. As a general stereotype and resulting from years upon years of patriarchal oppression, it is believed that women hedge more than men. This also carries the implication that women are less intelligent. Now we know from a lot of other research (and a thing I like to call common sense) that simply being a woman does not make a person less smart than anyone else. Though why are we looking at female STEM majors in particular? The number of women in stem has been far less than the number of men in the field for many years in our past. In recent years, many more women have been joining the STEM field, choosing to become STEM majors. Their numbers have been steadily increasing every few years from what it was in the past, but also has not been increasing fast enough to be considered a “boom” of any sort. Does the high expectation for the small percentage of women entering these male-dominated fields make them feel less confident in their abilities to acquire/distribute STEM-related information? Could the use of more hedging be intentional, and used as a sort of cushion for being able to make mistakes? It is also possible that the content within STEM fields, which is generally considered difficult to grasp, may make it harder for people to assert their knowledge of the subject. This semi-spontaneous interview test attempts to collect data that can be used as evidence to answer these questions.


To collect our data, we used a sample of twelve STEM majors at UCLA: six male, six female. We conducted a short interview, asking questions that would illicit hedging. The questions were:

    1. What is one STEM class that you’re currently taking?
    2. Can you explain something that you’re learning in that class?
    3. What is the most difficult thing you have learned in that class?

These questions were designed to provoke deeper thought and test mastery of the participant’s field of study. After the interview, we then explain to the interviewees our study and hedging, specifically what it is and how someone might use it in certain scenarios. We give this explanation to allow them to reflect on the subject and determine how much they think they use it and why they use it as a linguistic tool. We also do this after conducting the interview so the participants are unaware of the topic, giving us the most genuine, unaltered responses. Finally, we give them a post-interview survey to answer based on their recent reflections on a scale from 1- 10. The questions include:

    1. How often do you think you use linguistics hedging?
    2. How confident or capable do you feel in your field of study?
    3. How often do you feel condescension or face condescending remarks said to you in your field?
    4. How much do you believe the environment you face (and the amount of discrimination / condescension) in your field has contributed to this your confidence in said field?
    5. How much do you believe the level of confidence you have affects the number of hedges you use?

With this whole study, we are able to collect genuine responses of hedging from the interview and perspectives on hedging from the participants with the survey.


Each interview from the twelve STEM majors lasted around two to three minutes. We noticed that the STEM majors commonly used hedges: “like”, “possibly”, and “may”. From the twelve interviews, we noticed that the most common hedge used by both genders was the word “like”. The STEM majors used the word “like”, not to show comparison, but to express vague statements. For example, one of the interviewees said:

“… Learning how you compose and create a CT scan from like Fourier transforms …”

Here, the interviewee used hedging to evasively state that she was learning how CT scans are created through Fourier transforms.

To analyze the interviews, we counted the occurrences of hedges in each interview and calculated the average frequency of hedges per gender.

Figure 1: Hedges Counted per Interview

The data revealed that females had an average of 6.83 hedges per interview while males had an average of 8.83 hedges per interview. Although females had a lower average of hedges than males, we noticed that the amount of hedges for both males and females were fairly similar with the exception of a few outliers. The maximum amount of hedges used was 18 hedges by a male, which is much higher than the amount of hedges counted for the other males. The minimum amount of hedges used was two hedges by two females. Because of the outliers and the fairly similar amount of hedges, it is hard to conclude that gender causes a change in frequency of hedges. Our data suggests that it is possible that the frequency of hedges is related to the individual’s competency in the subject rather than gender. To have more conclusive results, we should have interviewed a large amount of people, but because our sample size was too small and hedging counts were fairly similar, it is hard to definitely conclude that gender affects hedging usage.

When we analyzed the questionnaire data from our post-interview surveys, we discovered several notable observations. One of those observations was that women felt significantly more adversity than men. For the question “how often do you feel discriminated against or underrepresented in your field?”, we found that women felt approximately 7 times more discrimination than men. Similarly, for the question “How often do you feel condescension or face condescending remarks said to you in your field?”, we observed women feeling about 3 times more condescension than men.

Figure 2: Perceived adversity by men and women

From those two questions alone, the data suggests that gender disparity continues to exist and has propagated into the UCLA community as well. Specifically, it seems that how much women experience discrimination today has not changed enough especially when it comes to factors such as earnings and promotions in the workplace.

Furthermore, when we analyzed the data from the question asking how confident they felt in their field of study, we observed that women felt more confident than men by a slight margin of 0.5. However, the data from the “How much do you believe the environment you face (and the amount of discrimination / condescension) in your field has contributed to your confidence in said field?” showed that women gave less credit to their environment. Surprisingly, the data suggests women believe they developed their confidence outside of the environment in their respective fields. This begs the question, if this is the case then where exactly are they getting their confidence from and why is this the case?

Discussion and Conclusions

Our hypothesis was inconclusive that women in stem hedge more than men since the data that we received was inconsistent. Even though women in the survey reported a higher frequency of using hedging the frequency of hedges in the interviews conducted was around the same. Therefore, we cannot conclude from our study that women in STEM hedge more because of under representation and lower confidence levels in their field. However, there are many parameters that could influence our findings such as our small sample size, as there were only 12 people interviewed and surveyed in total. Another factor is that the people we used in our experiment were people we were familiar or friends with thus they might have been more comfortable around us, which could influence the frequency of hedges they used.

In the future we could possibly recreate the study but with a larger sample size which would even out the outliers in our data. We could also sample random people which we have not met previously. Furthermore ,we could research the differences in hedging between gender in different majors of the STEM field, such as computer science, mathematics, physics, etc, and observe whether the field you are in can affect the difference in hedging frequencies of men and women. We could also conduct the study among people interested in STEM of different education levels, such as in high school, and different colleges.

Through examination of hedging we can have a better understanding of the effects of gender in the STEM fields and language use. A continuation of this study could be very beneficial to stem majors when considering the role of gender in the stem field and the level of confidence they portray. In particular this research can be important when considering the work force, specifically that women are less likely to ask for raises and promotions. This could be tied into hedging since hedging relates to being uncertain and less confident in one’s ideas. We believe that this is a very important area of research with a lot of potential to explore the effects of gender in STEM and look forward to future contributions regarding this topic.


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