Are Numbers Gendered?
Skip to content
Marketing Sep 4, 2012

Are Numbers Gendered?

What they reveal about the human mind

Two brains calculating numbers and gear

iMrSquid via iStock

Based on the research of

James Wilkie

Galen Bodenhausen

Numerology is often brushed off as little more than superstition. Take the number thirteen, which is considered unlucky in many cultures. Or the number seven, which is often deemed auspicious. But logical people beg to differ. So what about numbers and their meanings would interest scientists?

Add Insight
to your inbox.

To psychologists Galen V. Bodenhausen and James E. B. Wilkie, the meanings people ascribe to numbers can reveal much about our psychological biases, the way we learned math, and even how our brains cope with abstract concepts. Bodenhausen, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Wilkie, an assistant professor at Notre Dame, discovered that we subconsciously assign genders to numbers. Even numbers are feminine; odd numbers are masculine.

It all started when Wilkie was struck with the notion that numbers could have a gender. He and Bodenhausen did a bit of searching on the Internet, which revealed a pile of anecdotes supporting his idea. A little more digging revealed that the phenomenon of people assigning gender to numbers dates back to ancient Greece and China. It was a topic ripe for research.

“Western cultures in the Pythagorean school—they have the sort of dichotomous view of reality. Everything falls into one of two categories,” Bodenhausen says. “There were all these things that were considered female in that philosophical system and all these things were considered male. Odd numbers were considered male and even numbers were considered female.”

“The Eastern tradition of yin and yang—those are also sort of fundamentally male and female ideas,” he adds. “They have the same sort of idea that odd numbers belong in the male category, the yang category, and even numbers fitting in the yin category. So we thought, let’s test this out and see if that’s the case.”

Experiments in Ambiguity

Wilkie and Bodenhausen recruited participants online for a series of experiments that probed the idea of gendered numbers. In each experiment, none of the participants knew the goal of the study was to evaluate a possible link between gender and number parity. Instead, they were told they would be judging the masculinity or femininity of various ambiguous items, like foreign names or pictures of the faces of babies.

Participants rated names shown next to a “1” to be significantly more masculine than those next to a “2”.

In the first experiment, English-speaking participants were asked to judge the masculinity or femininity of either Bulgarian or Spanish names with which participants were unlikely to be familiar. Alongside each name, on a random basis, was either a “1” or a “2”, which they were told was merely there to aid the researchers’ organization. In reality, Wilkie and Bodenhausen were studying how participants subconsciously reacted to the numbers themselves. Participants rated names shown next to a “1” to be significantly more masculine than those next to a “2”.

The second study was largely similar to the first, but this time Wilkie and Bodenhausen tested the effect on three-digit numbers. (To make this experiment distinct from the first, these numbers did not include ones or twos.) Again, names paired with odd numbers were deemed more masculine. In the third experiment, the researchers used baby photos instead of unfamiliar names, pairing each photo with an arbitrary number. Babies paired with odd numbers were rated as appearing more masculine, another statistically significant result.

“We think that there are probably multiple reasons why these associations exist. It isn’t just one simple explanation,” Bodenhausen says. One possibility, he says, could be our experiences when learning math. Division by even numbers is easy compared to odd numbers, leading us to develop an affinity for even numbers. Or the masculinity of odd numbers could relate to our understanding of the number one as a single, stand-alone entity (both figuratively and literally—the shape is quite solitary). The number two, on the other hand, suggests togetherness and cooperation—stereotypically feminine qualities. Those initial perceptions of “1” and “2” could then color people’s impressions of other numbers sharing the same category (i.e., other odd or even numbers).

Numbers (and Gender) Everywhere

Gender associations with even and odd numbers could have all sorts of implications—from retail pricing to casinos to professional athletes—but Wilkie and Bodenhausen say the trend they picked up on could reveal far deeper insights. “There has been an idea in cognitive science that the way we can get to abstract concepts is only by starting out in something very concrete and bootstrapping from that concrete beginning,” Bodenhausen says. “Something like a cow is a very concrete thing, but the concept of one cow? That concept of one turns out to be much more abstract than you would think it is.”

Given how much concrete experience people have with the differences between male and female roles, gender seems to be a common point of reference for understanding many different concepts—just look at how pervasive it is in ancient philosophical systems. Associating numerical concepts with gender may be one way people are able to grasp these otherwise abstract ideas.

Related reading on Kellogg Insight

Real Men Don’t Eat Very Berry Cheesecake: Manly preferences take their toll

Biases that Bind: The role of stereotypes in decision-making processes

Women and Math, the Gender Gap Bridged: Social equality frees women to match men

Featured Faculty

Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management; Co-Director of the Center on the Science of Diversity

About the Writer
Tim De Chant was science writer and editor of Kellogg Insight between 2009 and 2012.
About the Research

Wilkie, J. E. B. and G. V. Bodenhausen. 2012. “Are Numbers Gendered?” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 141: 206-210.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  2. 6 Takeaways on Inflation and the Economy Right Now
    Are we headed into a recession? Kellogg’s Sergio Rebelo breaks down the latest trends.
    inflatable dollar sign tied down with mountains in background
  3. How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It
    Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.
    employee presents to CEO in elevator
  4. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  5. How Offering a Product for Free Can Backfire
    It seems counterintuitive, but there are times customers would rather pay a small amount than get something for free.
    people in grocery store aisle choosing cheap over free option of same product.
  6. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  7. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  8. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  9. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  10. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  11. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  12. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  13. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  14. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  15. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
  16. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  17. How Will Automation Affect Different U.S. Cities?
    Jobs in small cities will likely be hit hardest. Check how your community and profession will fare.
    How will automation affect jobs and cities?
More in Marketing