Gender Differences and Assertiveness in the English Language

Author’s Note: This is an essay I wrote for a university course in English Language and Literature autumn 2015.


Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars is a well-known idiom, but how accurate is this linguistically? In this essay, I will discuss possible differences in assertiveness in the English language between speakers of different genders, with a focus on societal gender norms. Before discussing these subjects, however, it is important to make a distinction between gender and sex: as Crawford puts it, gender is defined as a “(…) complex system of classification and societal control operating at social structural, interactional, and individual levels” (Crawford, 1995: ix). This definition can be considered the basis of the discussion on gender differences, as it highlights how gender, as perceived based on societal norms and expectations, is separate from sex, a biological difference between male and female individuals. To further strengthen this idea, Bing and Bergvall (1996: 3) point out that cultures which recognize a non-binary gender diversity, both biologically and culturally, do not exhibit the same need to fit non-binary variance into a dichotomy, as is common in Western countries.

The discussion of whether English speakers exhibit linguistic differences depending on their gender is a difficult topic, since the scientific body of studies is built on some research flaws: many studies have been conducted in a clinical manner, excluding social interactions between speakers of different genders, thus reducing an issue with multiple variables to one in a sterile, hypothetical environment. There are studies that have been conducted in ways that take into account the many variables that affect language use, such as socioeconomic background, race, sexuality, et cetera; and that have shown great similarities between the two genders (Crawford, 1995: 58–59), but the stereotype of the gender dichotomy is still at large. This shows how the discussion is based on flawed presumptions and studies, which in turn affects the reliability of the research - something I feel to be important to keep in mind when discussing linguistic gender differences. Furthermore, these studies often focus only on gender difference, not similarities, as well as portraying women as a deviation from the linguistic norm, the masculine way of speaking - something I will explore later on in this essay. The latter is exemplified by Goddard and Patterson (2000):

(… O)ne of the first linguists to give (linguistic gender difference) the stamp of academic authority in modern times was Otto Jesperson, in his Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922) (…) His chapter on sex differences in language speaks volumes by its title: ‘The Woman’. In other words, men are seen as the norm and women as departing from that norm in various ways - as being deviant.

(Goddard & Patterson, 2000: 94)

The notion that women are inherently more submissive than men has been pervasive throughout history: for example, in the early 1970s, a new form of linguistic therapy called ‘assertiveness correction’ arose. This therapy, aimed mainly at women, sought to teach women how to be more assertive in their daily life, and was often portrayed as a remedy for women. The base assumption behind this new form of therapy was that women were a stigmatized social group with inherent helplessness, and that they could be trained to be more assertive, which would help them acquire status amongst their peers (Crawford, 1995: 49–52). This assumption, however, was flawed, as there was no scientific evidence to back up the claim that women were inherently less dominant or assertive in their daily lives - Crawford believes that women might appear less assertive due to their not possessing as high-status roles in society as men, which results in women not needing to be more assertive (Crawford, 1995: 63).

What the implementation of assertiveness therapy, and its underlying body of research, has shown us is that a large part of the discussion of gender differences is based on flawed assumptions and stereotypes. I would therefore like to suggest that the linguistic differences in gender are not inherent, but part of cultural assumptions of how ‘men and women’ are supposed to talk - a sociolinguistic fact, not a biological one. Since women have traditionally held very different societal roles to men, they have not been subjected to the same sociolinguistic scrutiny as men: a stay-at-home mother is not expected to use similar language when talking to her children as a male CEO would when conversing with his employees or the board of directors. Inherently, I believe, women have the same prerequisites for assertive, or even aggressive, speech as men, but it is culturally expected of women to be more submissive and silent, due to their traditional societal roles - this notion is backed up by a study conducted by Moriarty (1975, as quoted in Crawford, 1995: 58–59), which showed that even the stereotype of male assertiveness did not hold up to scientific scrutiny. During the 20th and 21st centuries, however, women have been more accepted into higher-status roles, which has brought on a paradigm shift in how women interact and talk with other people in their groups - this shift, I believe, is seen both in the attitudes of men, who now have their traditional roles as leaders threatened in a new way; and women, who might find it difficult to assume a role they never before have been able to assume.

Another point to bring up is that male linguistic behaviour has commonly been seen as the norm, whereas female behaviour is the ‘deviation’ (Crawford, 1995: 9; Goddard & Patterson, 2000: 86). This assumption has led to the belief that women’s speech should be corrected with tools such as assertiveness therapy to resemble the ‘norm’, masculine speech. This stereotype further enforces the notion of inherent linguistic gender differences, even though its base presumption is nothing more than that - a stereotype.

To conclude, I do not see there being inherent differences in the assertiveness between the sexes. Years of cultural conditioning to societal roles has led the populace to believe that “(…) gender is difference, and difference is static, bipolar and categorical” (Crawford, 1995: 1). The ongoing development for acceptance of women in roles traditionally held by men is changing the way both women and men look at women’s speech, which is a chance to let go of old stereotypes of women, based on flawed research and popular belief.

Post-Script Additions

There are some points which I wish to either clarify or elaborate on in this essay:

Firstly, I somewhat heavily point out that linguistic gender differences are not inherent to the gender dichotomy. While this still holds true, I would like to emphasize that differences in speech between the two dichotomized genders are still very much visible and existent - to say otherwise would be distorting the truth. Even though these differences are social constructs, they should be recognized for what they are, before one can decide on doing something to change their course.

Secondly, I would like to refer to the works of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu - specifically, his work on power relations, habitus and fields. To put it concisely, Bourdieu states that people act and perform based on the field they are acting in and its high-status members. Researchers such as Janet Holmes have therefore concluded that women, in the social field of work and high-status positions, might ‘do’ power in a different way than men. One could therefore also assume that women’s linguistic assertiveness manifests itself in a different manner to men’s. This is a subject I would warmly recommend further reading about.

Finally: to simplify matters, this essay is written from a gender-dichotomized perspective. I am acutely aware of this not being the entire truth, and would therefore like to pose the following question to you, the reader: What happens to this perceived linguistic assertiveness with people who do not conform to this traditional sense of gender dichotomy, for instance transgendered people?

The subject of gender and language use is vast and complicated, and one should not assume to understand this complicated matter after reading just this essay - the list of references below forms a structurally fairly sound base for reading about the matter, and I would highly recommend looking into the specifics of gendered language use, as detailed for example in Crawford’s work.

List of References

Bing, J. & Bergvall, V. 2010. Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

Crawford, M. 1995. Talking Differences: On Gender and Language. London, California, etc.: SAGE Publications.

Goddard, A. & Patterson, L. M. 2000. Language and Gender. London and New York: Routledge.

Moriarty, T. 1975. “A Nation of Willing Victims”. Psychology Today (9): 43–50.

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