Katherine Hilton, in 2018, surveyed 5,000 American English speakers to investigate the culture behind conversations and interruptions. Why are interruptions important? They are linked to social power—in dyadic interactions, the more powerful partner is more likely to interrupt. Establishing this, the results show the stark gender bias in perceiving conversation. When male and female listeners were given the same voice recording, male listeners found the woman in the audio to be less intelligent, less friendly, and rude. When a man in the audio file said the same things, he was not perceived by male listeners to be any of the above.
The study suggests that interruptions in conversation have a direct effect on how a woman’s intelligence is perceived. Conversing around the dinner table, in the office or on world stages — women’s interruptions have different implications than men. Men and women are supposed to interact differently. While the former has to be viewed as assertive, loud, and opinionated, the latter needs to be cordial, smiling and agreeable. The inherent difference in how women and men are supposed to communicate indicates the underlying gender biases in the conversation itself.
Is there a difference in how we communicate?
Recently, in May 2020, Facebook claimed that its AI was able to detect gender biases in texts. It could apparently tell the difference in a text sent by a man and that sent by a woman. They report that training the classifier on a data set containing 250,000 text snippets from Reddit, enabled it to generate gendered sentences on command, for instance, “Awwww, that sounds wonderful” and “You can do it bro!”. Even reading this brings into question why these statements are gendered in the first place. While both signify a tone of encouragement, you would expect the former to be a woman’s text due to the multiple w’s. The former seems “sweeter” and occupies a more passive tone as compared to the latter. ‘Bro’, itself has largely masculine tones, and thus, it is no surprise that the text originates from a man’s phone. It sounds more assertive and dominant in comparison as well to the earlier text.
This kind of gendered conversation is not limited to content but also extends to the tone and nature of verbal communication. Maltz and Broker in their research paper titled “A cultural approach to male-female miscommunication” collated data from 7 different studies to reach the following hypothesis; Women showed a greater tendency to ask questions and often fell into a pattern of women asking and men answering. They were more likely to use positive minimal responses, especially “mm hmm” and only employ “silent protest” after having been interrupted.
Conversely, men were more likely to interrupt the speech of their partners. They were more likely to ignore comments that were made by their conversational partner. They would either respond slowly or unenthusiastically. Lastly, and perhaps, most significantly, they used methods for controlling the flow as well as topics mentioned within the conversation more than women.
While there is a difference in how we communicate, this difference itself is an indicator of gender bias. Women are expected to be kinder, sweeter, and approachable in their way of communication. In an office environment, a woman can build an image of being intolerant and uncompassionate simply for speaking up. However, those same adjectives, even if attributed to men, would not be a problem. In fact, it would perhaps be an asset.
Why is there a difference in how we communicate?
Our relation with how we communicate can be contextualised to our perceived power in society. Men dominate topic control and the tone of the conversation as a variance of social power. Women are supposed to be docile in comparison to men and are even expected to actively contribute to their power. ‘To be socially acceptable’, women cannot dominate or seem to exert dominance.
A large part of this problem is language itself. Terms such as “man-power”, “God the Father”, “stewardess” and “fireman” that propagate gender stereotypes.
Gender-neutral language is not the norm. So when jobs have a gender dominantly associated with them like “police-man”, the job title itself acts as a barrier of entry to people of other genders. When one uses such language, they are not only intrinsically enforcing gender bias but also enforcing them on the person they are talking to. This, unfortunately, leads to a normalisation of such gender-specific culture.
The culture of assigning male or female roles to particular jobs is indicative of how gender roles are perceived. Unfortunately, job titles of “policeman”, “anchor-man”, etc., are found in school textbooks and taught to teenagers who are aspiring for such opportunities only to be told that conventional nomenclature has no place for a “police-woman.” The ‘why’ in ‘why is there a difference in how we communicate’, is self-perpetuating. It is present in the difference between the toys a girl and boy play with, the colours that are assigned to them at birth (pink for girls and blue for boys), the way they are told to communicate (to listen more for girls and to speak up for boys) that culminate, finally, in them looking around and understanding the attributes that society wants out of them are different based on their gender. It is a systemic problem starting from our textbooks and ending in our jobs.
How do we solve this difference in how we communicate?
The process is difficult and tough to execute. It needs to start with using gender-neutral language around the office, in political speeches, in our houses. The shift from using ‘he/she’ pronouns to ‘they/them’ pronouns and additionally, substituting words of policeman and mailman with police-officer and mail carrier. Such linguistic changes while one step ahead, leave a lot to the zeitgeist.
The constraints of gender roles and their enforcement during childhood have a large part to play in what adolescents think their roles in society are. However, while changing the language is a productive tool, what also needs to change is the perception. As mentioned in the Hilton study, since intelligence is directly related to how a woman communicates her thoughts, the way in which she does, should not be gendered. A woman should not be perceived to be aggressive or too ambitious for speaking her mind and this change can come only through a change in perception.
Presently, the ideal standard of a woman is someone sweet, innocent and someone who doesn’t speak too much or when not required. This ideal needs to push to accommodate not just that variant of a woman. It needs to include women who are not simply saying ‘mm hmm’. The differences among women, in how they communicate are enormous, and asking all women to conform to this one ideal standard is the issue. Changing this perception through policy is one path forward as seen by policies of quotas, hiring female CEOs, and other measures. However, the change in perception is something highly dependent on the new generation and how they are taught.
Thus, policy push should come in education where textbooks are designed to be gender-neutral, where jobs are not limited to you based on your sex and aggression and ambition have nothing to do with your gender identity. The path forward has to start in our schooling and how we communicate to our next generation what their roles in society are.
Niharika Mehrotra is a second year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Political Science from Ashoka University.