- Learn to recognize gendered communication styles and habits.
- Learn to identify gender stereotypes and expectations in communication.
- Learn to understand the relationship between gender, language, and power.
“The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.”
“Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We're not inherently anything but human.”
Over decades, researchers have demonstrated how gender—the social construction of what it means to be a man or a woman—influences nearly every aspect of living. As a woman in a male-dominated field, gender is an omnipresent and important factor in communication processes. Gender dynamics (including gendered language, gender socialization, and gender stereotyping) shape how messages in communication are both presented and interpreted (see Planning the Message and Expressing Yourself). Stereotypically female styles of interacting, such as communicating with warmth and openness may be beneficial in some situations; however, research suggests that conforming to gender stereotypes can be damaging when these behaviors are in conflict with expectations for leaders and other role expectations1,2. There are also social consequences, for women who do not fit gender stereotypes3. Ultimately, language and communication reflect, maintain, and even create the social roles and power structures that lead to gender inequities. Becoming more aware of how gender dynamics affect communication can help you gain perspective on your experiences and be more effective in attaining the outcomes you want.
To me, being a woman:
The correct answer is “d.” Being a woman impacts different aspects of your identity. So unlike answer “a,” it influence your communication interactions (more on this later). While some others may treat you less favorably due to your sex, as option “b” suggests, some people may treat you more favorably for being a woman too. And unlike option “c,” only you can decide whether you will do what it takes be successful in your career, although there will certainly be barriers you may need to overcome to get there.
For many, gender dynamics are so deeply entrenched in our thinking, everyday language and ways of interacting that they go unrecognized and are taken for granted [See Recognize Sexism]. When being a woman is an advantage, such as when you stand out favorably in a sea of men in your field, gender still makes a difference in your experience. Considering how gender operates in your daily life is important to fully understanding the process of communication.
Gender and Interpersonal Styles
Differences in styles of interacting contribute to gender dynamics in communication. Despite common notions of difference, women and men are more alike than different on most dimensions4,5,6. However, in U.S. culture women are generally more likely to seek or prefer7:
- Support (over status)
- Intimacy (over independence)
- Understanding (over advice)
- Feelings (over information)
- Proposals (over demands)
- Compromise (over conflict)
Additionally, women are more likely to demonstrate communication skills such as:
- Displaying empathy
- Listening carefully
- Showing sensitivity to interpersonal differences
- Giving constructive feedback
- Offering support
Overall, feminine characteristics are more conducive than male characteristics to making others feel comfortable and building close relationships. In many cases, these characteristics and styles are also highly beneficial in the work environment8. In fact, some employee training programs focus on developing the above stereotypically feminine communication skills in employees8.
Other feminine styles of interacting are less beneficial in the workplace as they can signal that women are less confident and/or capable of being in a leadership position (also see Expressing Yourself, The Impression You Make, and Your Personality and Preferences). Examples include9:
- The use of qualifying “hedges” (e.g., “It seems like...” “Maybe we should consider...” “I’m not sure, but...”)
- Being indirect
- Stating information in the form of a question as opposed to a statement
- Being silent
Keep in mind that the actual empirical differences between men and women may be less important than how people respond to these perceived differences. You may find that many people act as though gender differences are real and quite distinct, even though their rationale for doing so is based may not be valid—it may in fact be nothing more than following a gender stereotype.
Gender Stereotypes and Expectations in Communication
Stereotypes play a strong role in the gender dynamics of communication. Stereotypes are assumptions and expectations placed on you by others based on your gender or other outwardly visible aspects of your identity. Stereotyping usually occurs without awareness or bad intention: it is generally automatic and unconscious10,11,12. Thus, even if you do not demonstrate typically feminine styles of interacting people still consciously or unconsciously expect you to behave as a woman and interpret your behaviors differently based on these stereotypes. For example, what may look like assertiveness in a man could be interpreted as aggression in a woman. You are especially at risk of being stereotyped by your gender when you are the only—or one of very few—women represented in your department.
Expectations about what it means to be a woman conflict with expectations about what it means to be a good leader and what it takes to get ahead in the workforce. Finding the balance between these types of opposing forces is what effective communication is about in a gendered context.
The implicit message to women is: “be more confident if you want to get ahead! But not too much, it’s not lady like; people won’t like you.” This is an example of a double bind: a communication dilemma in which an individual receives two or more conflicting messages, with one message canceling out the other. The double bind can prevent the individual from changing her situation because making a change in one area negatively affects another area. Research has suggested that this double bind is especially disadvantageous for women in an interview setting3.
The point is you are not going to be able to please everyone. Sometimes breaking out of or conforming to stereotypes means developing your own unique styles of communication that are useful to you as an individual (and may not work for everyone else). YOU are the person this all has to work for.
CareerWISE Tip: You can prevent negative stereotypes and expectations from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by trusting in yourself and your abilities. Remember that whatever you believe about yourself is usually what others will eventually come to believe about you as well.
Gender, Language, and Power
Language and social power comprise the third area of gender dynamics. Feminists and sociologists argue that language and communication reflect, maintain, and even create social roles and power structures, including gender inequity13,14. For example, they argue that despite efforts to reinforce alternatives, the English language tradition of using the terms “man” and “he” to refer to both men and women reflects the position of men in our society as “regular” people, the standard whereby women are the “other”—a “subtype,” or even an aberration of men. Instead of being understood as their own entity, women are then always defined in relation to men and specifically in opposition to them15.
Names and titles send a strong message about power and status. Women are continually and differentially16 addressed in ways that reflect their perceived or assumed inferior status to men. For example, grown women are commonly addressed as “girl” in the media and in everyday interactions. In academic settings, women professors are still addressed by their first or married names rather than by Dr. or Professor. The use of gendered language is not just limited to face-to-face interactions. In fact, studies have shown that men and women use different language features, functions, and style in written and online communication17.
To help combat the use of gendered language in your field, try to use gender-neutral terms in your speech and writing. This shows others in your department that you make a concerted effort to keep sexism out of your field and sets a precedent for how people should treat you. This may include modeling more equitable gender terms for students or colleagues (e.g., using “ombudsperson” instead of “ombudsman”) and reminding your students how you prefer to be addressed. Again, ultimately you teach others how to treat you.
- Eagly, A. H. (2007). Female leadership advantage and disadvantage: Resolving the contradictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31(1), 1-12. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2007.00326.x
- Catalyst (2007). The double-bind dilemma for women in leadership: Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t. New York: Catalyst.
- Phelan, J. E., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Rudman, L. A. (2008). Competent yet out in the cold: Shifting criteria for hiring reflect backlash toward agentic women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(4), 406-413. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00454.x
- Barnett, R. & Rivers, C. (2004). Same difference: How gender myths are hurting our relationships, our children, and our jobs. New York: Basic Books.
- Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-592. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581
- Wright, P. H. (2006). Toward an expanded orientation to the comparative study of women’s and men’s same sex friendships. In K. Dindia & D. J. Canary (Eds.), Sex differences and similarities in communication (2nd edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Balance Books.
- O'Neill, K. S., Hansen, C. D., & May, G. L. (2002). The effect of gender on the transfer of interpersonal communication skills training to the workplace: Three theoretical frames. Human Resource Development Review, 1(2), 167-185. doi:10.1177/15384302001002003
- Lakoff, R. T. (1975). Language and woman’s place. New York: Harper & Row.
- Banaji, M. R., & Hardin, C. D. (1996). Automatic stereotyping. Psychological Science, 7(3), 136 141. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00346.x
- Banaji, M. R., Lemm, K. M., & Carpenter, S. J. (2001). The social unconscious. In M. Hewstone & M. Brewer (SeriesEds.) & A. Tesser & N. Schwartz (Vol. Eds.), Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Vol.1. Intraindividual processes (pp. 134–158). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., Rudman, L. A., Farnham, S. D., Nosek, B. A., & Mellott, D. S. (2002). A unified theory of implicit attitudes, stereotypes, self-esteem, and self-concept. Psychological Review, 109(1), 3-25. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.109.1.3
- Weatherall, A. (2002). Gender, language and discourse. Hove England; New York: Routledge.
- Crawford, M. (2001). Gender and language. In R. K. Unger (Ed.), Handbook of the psychology of women and gender (pp. 228– 244). New York: Wiley.
- Du Gay, P. (2007). Organizing Identity: Persons and organizations ‘after theory.’ London: Sage.
- Benokraitis, N.V. (1997). Subtle sexism: current practices and prospects for change. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
- Thomson, R. (2006). The effect of topic of discussion on gendered language in computer mediated communication discussion. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 25(2), 167-178. doi:10.1177/0261927X06286452
Related HerStories Videos
Being Comfortable as a Woman Among Men
Emphasizes positive peer relationships within her cohort.
Ways to Cope with Minor Issues Related to Being a Woman
How to observe others' reactions to subtle comments in order to gauge an appropriate response.
Standing Out as a Woman
An alternative way to approach being the only woman in a given situation.
The Good, the Bad, the "Only"
The pros and cons of being the only woman in a department and the importance of setting boundaries and knowing your own limitations.
Gender Bias in the US
The first realization that being a woman in science was outside the norm.
Oblivion is Bliss
How being unaware of being the only woman was advantageous to program success.
Hidden Differences in Academic Culture (Extended)
Environmental issues faced in academia.
Captures the annoyance of male colleagues making sexist assumptions and the challenges with conference travel as a female graduate student.
An Arizona State University project, supported by the National Science Foundation under grants 0634519 and 0910384
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views
of the National Science Foundation. © 2016 CareerWISE. All rights reserved. Privacy | Legal