G is for Gender

23 05 2010

According to a BBC report this week, “men are bigger liars than women”: they admit to telling around three porkies a day, compared to women who lie only twice.

Hmm.  This sounds like the kind of dodgy research that Deborah Cameron calls “soundbite science”. In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus (OUP 2007), she takes to task researchers who make newsworthy but unfounded claims for gender differences, of the type “Men interrupt more than women do”, or “Women are more talkative than men”. Or – as in the BBC report – “Men lie more than women”. For a start (she says) such claims ignore the fact that there is as much variation within each gender group as there is between them. Another problem is that such studies take linguistic behaviour out of context: “To make sense of linguistic behaviour we need to go back to the context and look at what a particular linguistic feature was actually being used to communicate” (p. 45). Asking people whether they lie or not overlooks the various pragmatic functions of “not telling the truth” – which can range from deliberate deceit of the Richard Nixon variety, to tactful avoidance of threats to face, of the type “No, it doesn’t make you look fat”.  One man’s deception might be another man’s (or woman’s) discretion.

Nevertheless, such spurious  claims for language-related  gender differences proliferate – especially on the internet. Of course, gender difference (whether real or invented) makes better news than gender similarity. A news headline that read “Women and men both tell a few fibs every day” wouldn’t attract much attention. Nor would it feed people’s apparent hunger to have gender stereotypes confirmed.  As Cameron argues, these alleged differences validate the very popular myth that men and women “speak a different language”, a myth that is founded on the following assumptions:

  1. Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men;
  2. Women are more verbally skilled than men.
  3. Men’s goals in using language tend to be instrumental—about getting things done—whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational—about making connections to other people…
  4. Men’s way of using language is competitive …Because of this, men’s style of communicating also tends to be more direct and less polite than women’s.
  5. These differences routinely lead to ‘miscommunication’ between the sexes.

(Cameron 2007, pp 7-8)

Cameron dismisses these claims fairly convincingly, exposing most of them as either fraudulent or exaggerated.  And, in the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (31:2, May 2010) she revisits the topic to critique what she calls “the new biologism”. This is the belief that linguistic differences connote gender differences that, in turn, are both biological and innate. Thus, evolutionary psychologists argue that men talk the way they do because their hunting ancestors had to be strong and silent, whereas women have inherited a nurturing and ‘mutual grooming’ role, reflected in their more empathetic and less assertive speaking style. Cameron argues that – if there are indeed differences between men’s and women’s talk – these owe to socio-cultural rather than to genetic factors. If women come across as less assertive, this may reflect an unequal distribution of power between the sexes in many social contexts.

In  the entry on gender in An A-Z of ELT I deal solely with linguistic gender (as in pronoun marking) and ignore these sociolinguistic issues. Reading Cameron makes me think I should take these issues up – along with the question (that Cameron doesn’t address directly) as to whether women really are better second language learners than men – for which there is a fair amount of supporting evidence, both anecdotal and research-based.

Which raises the question: if – as Cameron claims – women don’t have a genetic advantage, what might the reasons be for their supposed success as language learners?



29 responses

23 05 2010
Nick Jaworski

This has always been a topic I’m quite interested in. It has always seemed to me like a certain predeterminstic Calvinist mindset transferred over from religion to science and genetics in America. Both are equally ludicrous in my opinion.

I’ve always hated evolutionary psychology. I think the problem lies in how poorly we teach genetics and brain science in schools. People often assume they are these static, unchanging systems, which simply isn’t true. Also, as Cameron points out, the media has a big influence in the way of what it publishes.

Regardless of the nature/nurture debate, it is often the case that men and women behave differently. The fact that I think this is predominately socio-cultural isn’t really important. In the classroom we still have to deal with the behaviors and perceptions that students come to class with. It’s similar to the learning styles debate we had. Regardless of the validity of the theory, the fact that students believe in or prefer one method makes it something we have to work with.

Are women better learners? If this is the case, I’d bet it’s because they have to work harder to move up. They also generally have more time at home, at least in Turkey. I don’t notice much of a difference between men and women in my classes here, but the best are always the covered girls as opposed to uncovered girls or men. I think this is because they are quite disenfranchised and they don’t have a lot of opportunities. To be successful, they have to work twice as hard as everyone else and, again, they usually have a lot of time at home. Really, what else are you going to do but study when you have to be home by 8 or even often 5pm every night?

23 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Nick for that valuable comment. I am intrigued by the correlation between effort and disenfranchisement (or motivation and modesty – however you construe it). It hadn’t really occurred to me before, but your rationale makes good sense. I wonder if anyone else, working in similar contexts, has noticed this.

23 05 2010

‘According to a BBC report this week, “men are bigger liars than women”: they admit to telling around three porkies a day, compared to women who lie only twice.’

Let’s face it, they were all probably lying about the number of times they lied.

23 05 2010
David Venezia

I read a BBC report a few months ago about how women utter many more words per day than men, and I didn’t make the connection between this claim and context situated language use–though the misrepresentation of ’empirical’ data Scott alludes to seems to fit generally in the schema I have for ‘news science.’ I’m going to take a closer look at Cameron’s work to fill in the gaps.

In terms of how it applies to “An A-Z of ELT,” I imagine Scott is and was often faced with the dilemma of whether to elaborate entries and complicate their content, or to keep it simple as a quick reference guide for teachers. In using the book for reference, I have not been left with a feeling of incompleteness on many entries. This may be because I use “An A-Z” as an initial reference source when I don’t know much at all about a concept related to ELT. I will then go and do some more time consuming research if possible. So as a first reaction, I would say that “An A-Z” can stay as it is. If Scott is thinking about elaborating and complicating entries, he may want to consider a more ambitious project and publish an “Unabriged A-Z.”

The most impressive aspect of the current reference guide, for me, has always been that so much information is condensed into very manageable entries.

Just a thought,


23 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks David for your comment. The claim that women utter more words per day than men is one that Cameron is particularly impatient with. It was popularised in a book called The Female Brain (2006), but the source of the estimated difference (20,000 vs 7,000 words) was found to be spurious and the author of the book was forced to retract – a retraction that, of course, did not make the news. It’s worth quoting Cameron’s comment in full:

“For anyone wondering what the true figures are, the answer is that it’s impossible to say: there is too much variation on average to mean anything. How much people talk largely depends on what they are doing and with whom. A housebound elderly woman who rarely has visitors might utter very few words per day, while a young man who works in telesales and has a busy social life might utter a very large number. The Guardian newspaper conducted an experiment in which they recorded two of their journalists, one male and one female, who spent the day doing broadly similar things… Not much can be concluded from observations made on a single day with a sample of just two people, but for the record, the woman’s word count was 12,329 and the man is was 11,279 (p. 183)

As for the A-Z, thanks for your kind comments: I don’t envisage enlarging it a great deal (in a second edition) but I do think there are some gaps that need to be filled, and the entry on gender is one of them.

30 05 2010
Sheila Vine

An interesting side issue from this is the way that in general men cannot relate to children’s babble whereas a female for example a mother often can ‘understand’ what the child is trying to communicate about. Perhaps this facility makes women more able to accept that there is more than one way to express something and so be more flexible about language learning. I remember reading once, years ago that language change in a section of society is often driven by young female members, for example new words, but sorry I cannot remember where this was from.

30 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Sheila, for your comment. It prompted me to look at the evidence form research into linguistic change, and how this correlates with gender differences. Most studies seem to focus on pronunciation changes, and the evidence suggests that gender differences intersect with other factors, particularly class. Jennifer Coates (in Women, Men and Language, 3rd edition, 2004) summarises the evidence:

It is not possible to claim that linguistic change is associated with one gender or the other. Women, for example, are sometimes linguistically innovative, sometimes linguistically conservative (p. 186-7)

One study that she quotes (Eckert 1990) suggests that, where girls are marginalised because of both gender and class, they will innovate more, using language as a form of ‘symbolic capital’ in order to gain social leverage otherwise denied to them.

30 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

As a postscript on my last comment, perhaps Coates (2004) should have the last word on gender differences: “In the past, researchers aimed to show how gender correlated with the use of particular linguistic features. Now, the aim is to show how speakers use the linguistic resources available to them to accomplish gender. Every time we speak, we have to bring off being a woman or being a man” (p. 217).

24 05 2010
Jessica Mackay

Thanks for opening this discussion as this is a subject that has always interested me. I recently read a chapter on Gender in ‘Lessons from Good Language Learners’ Ed. Carol Griffiths, CUP, 2008 (brilliant book) by Martha Nyikos. She reviewed research and concluded that there was no empirical evidence that women were better language learners than men. She quotes Norton and Pavlenko 2004: 504, “gender, as one of the many important facets of social identity, interacts with race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, (dis) ability, age and social status in framing students’ language learning experience, trajectories and outcomes”.

It seems to me that the question is not whether women are better than men but why they are more interested in learning languages. In my institution, a large university language school in Spain with 7,000+ students across all languages, roughly 70% of the student body is women. In the university, the gender distribution is fairly equal and there is no doubt that both sexes are aware of the importance of English for their future personal and professional development. So where are the male learners? Are they studying on their own? Are they more autonomous?

On a personal note, I think I work in a fairly unique context in EFL terms. In the English department there are 25 teachers, only 5 of whom are women. I don’t think that’s typical, at least not in Spain (I might be wrong, I’d be interested to hear other statistics). Fifteen years of English department meetings have taught me that there is definitely a difference in our interaction, the (articulate, intelligent, by no means shy) women generally contributing less and being far less confrontational. Is that because we’re a minority? Am I generalising?

24 05 2010
Nick Jaworski

In response to Jessica:

As far as native speakers traveling abroad and teaching, there has always seemed to be a fairly equal distribution of men and women, but when it comes to the countries I work in, the local teachers are overwhelmingly women. This went for back home too. It was quite rare to see a male art or English teacher, while female science teachers seemed to be in short supply.

I think in many places teaching is considered a woman’s profession which would probably account for the large number of female language learner’s vs. males. There are also certain subjects that are culturally perceived to be women’s or men’s.

24 05 2010
Joanne Sato

Hi all,

Certainly here in Japan native speakers arriving to teach English are fairly equally distributed in terms of gender. However, I would herald a wild guess that the number of those remaining after say five years would be more likely to be male. This means the non-Japanese ELT ‘professionals’ – school owners, university professors, textbook writers – based in Japan are more likely to be male (reflected in a recent recruitment drive at my college where a mere five per cent of applicants were female). I think there is a gender-related reason for this, but it has nothing to do with language learning!

As a gender studies graduate of the mid-nineties I am always quite intrigued by articles on gender and find most that is written polarizing and unhelpful. I have recently completed a paper about gender bias in textbooks, and thought I’d post a few articles and book titles for those who are interested! Sorry to take up space for those who are not.

Sunderland, J. (2004) Gendered Discourses. Basingstoke: Palgrave / Macmillan.

Sunderland, J. (2006) Language and Gender: an advanced resource book. London: Routledge.

Davis, K. A and Skilton-Sylvester, E. (2004) ‘Looking Back, Taking Stock, Moving Forward: Investigating Gender in TESOL’. Tesol Quarterly 38: 381-404

Harrington, K. et. al. (eds.) (2008) Gender and Language Research Methodologies. Basingstoke: Palgrave / Macmillan.

Inoue, M. (2006) Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan. Berkerly: The University of California Press.

Kelsky, K. (2006) Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams. Durham: Duke University Press

24 05 2010
Jessica Mackay

Hi Nick,

I agree with you if we are talking exclusively about English Philology (one of the few remaining subjects in this University which is still predominantly female). What I didn’t make clear in my previous post is that the students at my school are not English majors, but come from all degree backgrounds.

This therefore begs the question that if the female students studying law, medicine, physics etc. recognise the importance of English in their futures and are motivated to do extra courses, why aren’t their male counterparts?

24 05 2010

Forgive the digression, but I notice that on the ‘Dogme ELT’ discussion group that the majority of postings are from male contributors. In fact, of the last 100 postings on the site, 80 were from men. A neat case of the 80-20 principle, or just a coincidence?

24 05 2010
Jessica Mackay

You’re right Lorna, I just looked back at the ‘C is for Coursebook’ discussion on this blog and there were approximately 14 posts by women (I say approximately as some of the names are gender ambiguous) out of over 90 comments. Is this a case of women avoidng contentious issues, as seems to be the case in my staff meetings?

Joanne’s post above is really interesting! I’d noticed that the longer I stayed in the profession the more male members of staff I worked with. I’d just assumed that it was because the salary and conditions were better (chip, shoulder, off!) but the question of longevity makes more sense and is perhaps less prejudiced than my previous assumption. My male colleagues are all long-term residents, most with Spanish / Catalan partners. I’m curious to know if this is gender-related reason that joanne was referring to. But that’s perhaps a different debate.

25 05 2010

Hey Lorna and Jessica,
Go for quality, not quantity… as for as number of posts, I remember a lot of staff room language arguments over as a game to see “who had the biggest grammar organ” with a bit of (inbuilt?) macho bs that the female staff generally couldn’t be bothered with.

Being dragged in here by Scott’s twitter “is the blogosphere a boys club?” I think that there are some interesting points to be raised and I wanted to see who did. (Nick does, as always…) it is true that there are disproportions in male/female keynotes, but I think internet is perhaps changing this as well. I find myself following people on twitter simply based on content. I find females leading males and non gender-specific people.

A great thing about the English language and the internet is that our words don’t have genders.

25 05 2010
Jason Renshaw

Interesting stuff, Scott, and reminds me somewhat of an article I read recently from the Australian Teacher magazine about so-called differences between male and female students at school.

The article there argues (quite convincingly, I might add) that differences between learning styles, behaviour, and academic achievement between the genders have almost nothing to do with biology and pretty much everything to do with the vastly different ways boys and girls are addressed and treated. From memory, the author compared an *authoritative* approach used by parents with girls to an *authoritarian* approach generally applied to boys, and concluded with the point that, basically, we need to treat and talk to boys from young ages and at school more along the lines the way we do with girls.

The article only appeared in print and there is no digital reference to include here, unfortunately. But it certainly did get me thinking, and your points here in this post reminded me of it.

(Hope I didnt go too far off-topic!)

– Jason

25 05 2010

To get back to a point made by Nick, I’d say that females make more effort because they have a higher perception of the valence of learning English than males, although I would agree that gender plays a significant role for gender in EFL proficiency.

Would you say that gender plays a significant role in the overall use of language learning strategies? I’d like to suggest that there are significant differences between males and females in terms of their use of memory, cognitive and compensation strategies (in favor of females).

25 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Adam. Your question sent me to the literature on gender differences in second language acquisition. For example Ellis (1994) cites a number of studies which have, however, “produced conflicting results”. For example, “a number of studies suggest that females have more positive attitudes to learning an L2 than males… Other studies suggest that women tackle the task of learning and L2 differently from men. Gass and Varonis’ (1986) research on sex differences in interactions involving learners concluded that men use the opportunities to interact to produce more output, whereas women use it to obtain more input. However, Pica et al. (1991) failed to find much evidence to support sex differences in interactions involving adult male and female Japanese learners of L2 English. Clearer evidence of sex differences comes from self-report studies of the strategies learners use. Bacon (1992) found that men reported using translation strategies more than women, while the women reported monitoring their comprehension more.” (p. 203) Ellis goes on to comment that “it is not easy to find clear-cut explanations for these results, nor, perhaps, should any be attempted at the present time…. [Nevertheless] one obvious explanation for females’ greater success in L2 learning in classroom settings is that they generally have more positive attitudes. This, in turn, may reflect their employment expectations. Girls may perceive a foreign language as having significant vocational value for them, whereas boys do not.” (Ibid).

Saville-Troike (2006) reports a similar batch of mixed findings, but adds — rather alarmingly — that some differences “may be related to hormonal variables: higher androgen level correlates with better automaticity skills, and high oestrogen with better semantic/interpretive skills (Mack 1992). Kimura (1992) reports that higher levels of articulatory and motor ability have been associated in women with higher levels of oestrogen during the menstrual cycle” (p. 84).

What implications this might have on level testing I shudder to think.

26 05 2010
Jessica Mackay

Hi again,

I was going to sit back (as happens in my English dept. staff meetings) but here I go again.

Just to go back to Scott’s original point, I had a look at an objective measure (depending how you feel about Cambridge exams) to compare the level of attainment of the students at my school and see whether the female students were actually more successful language learners. Here are some of the results.

In 2009 we had 188 students take FCE of whom 58% were women, which is less than the overall school average (70%).
However at CAE, there were 106 candidates and 66% were women. Pure speculation here: Could this mean that women have a more long-term vision of learning languages and eventually reach a higher level, giving us the impression that they are better learners? (all 6 of the CPE candidates last year were also women, not a high number, admittedly).

The division of sexes among those passing the exams almost exactly reflected the proportion which presented for the exam (FCE 43% men and 57% women). This was repeated at CAE (37% men, 63% women). However, in the higher grades (As & Bs) the distribution was far more equal, approaching 50% in both cases, which when you consider that the vast majority of those taking the exam were women, means that if anything, men were more likely ( in this very limited context) to achieve a better result. Hmmm!

26 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fascinating data, Jessica. Now I’m wondering if Cambridge ESOL has data that they will release re gender differences and relative success rates. It would make interesting reading.

15 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

Hi Scott,

Look what appears in the latest issue of the TESOL Quarterly:

Do Language Proficiency Test Scores Differ by Gender? James, Cindy L.

TESOL Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 2, June 2010 , pp. 387-398(12)

15 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Well noted, Jessica!

And this is what they found: previous studies — for example the IELTS test and TOEFL — “females on average appear to score higher than males on language proficiency exams. However, these differences are minimal…” The researchers report a study using the Accuplacer ESL test on nearly 500 students from a wide range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds over a two-year period, and found similar results, i.e. “the females scored higher than males” but only slightly. However, “the subtests measuring reading and vocabulary skills produced the greatest difference in mean scores” leading the researchers to argue that the differences related to gender-specific skills abilities and not to a preference for certain test types. They go on to wonder whether these differences might relate to previous educational experience rather than to any inherent differences between the sexes. As always “more research is needed”.

28 05 2010
Keith Sands

On the subject of gender in language teaching materials, things have at least moved on since this picture was taken. Though there is at least some advanced use of realia …

29 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Nice, Keith!

I actually have the teachers’ manual that goes with this series, English for Coming Americans (1918), which is a mixture of quite good – and rather scary – advice. Here is an example of the latter:

“Don’t be discouraged if the men are not up to your expectation in cleanliness, responsiveness and capacity… The wise teacher who expects to convert the raw material of backward Europe into Coming Americans must not be impatient… The men who are to transform the aliens of Europe into useful citizens are the men who are patient, trained and sympathetic—men who are yoked to the Christian ideal of service.”

Note that all “coming Americans” were men rather than women – to return to the gender theme!

29 05 2010

Here are two pieces of advice from the book “Don’ts for wives” (1913)

“Don’t bother your husband with a stream of senseless chatter if you can see that he is very fatigued. Help him to the tit-bits at dinner: modulate your voice; don’t remark on his silence. If you have a cheery little anecdote to relate, tell it with quiet humour, and by the by he will respond. But if you tackle him in the wrong way, the two of you will spend a miserable evening.”

“Don’t fuss your husband. Mistaken attentions often annoy a man dreadfully. If he comes home late after a busy day, and has a quiet little supper alone he doesn’t want you to jump up and down like a Jack-in-a-box with “would you like more pepper darling?” and present him with the cruet from the opposite end of the table when he already has one in front of him. See that everything is conveniently placed and then leave him alone until he is fed. Let him feel your sympathetic presence near him, but occupy yourself in reading or doing the needlework; anyhow don’t fuss him.”

1 06 2010
Keith Sands

Thanks for the comment on the picture, Scott. Slightly worrying that this is the one image Wikipedia chooses to illustrate their main article on ELT! As a ‘historian of methods’, can you explain what is going on in the picture? Is this the Gouin ‘series method’? (The pedantic break down of teamaking into its component stages seems to suggest something of the kind – I remember in Howatt’s History of ELT some similar step-by-step instructions for chopping a log). And is there a sort of proto-TPR going on here too?

Sorry if I’m going a bit off topic here but I’m really curious!

1 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Keith. Yes, I think you’re right – that this is very much Gouin-influenced Direct Method, although to what extent the learners were expected to actually imitate the actions I’m not sure. The similarities between Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) and Gouin’s ‘series method’ have been noted by, among others, Richards and Rodgers in Approaches and Methods in Second Language Teaching (CUP) – see p. 8 of the 2007 edition.

7 11 2010
Nick Jaworski

Just came across this on Twitter http://ascd.typepad.com/blog/2010/11/myth-of-pink-blue-brains.html. Apparently an 8 year studies finds no differences in the way boys and girls learn.

10 04 2017

I think that the trap that is most commonly fallen into here is attempting to make sweeping generalisations based on gender, especially as gender is more of a fluid scale rather than the black and white – boy/girl divide. It could be that the success that women have as language learners stems from the ‘traditional’ divide of boys being more science and maths focused, whilst women have a higher tendency towards humanities and languages. Whilst this is more of a nurturing explanation than a genetic one, attempting to make a sweeping genetic generalisation based on aptitude vs gender, has long been argued, without much end in site. Conversely, could you pose that men are poor language learners rather than women being better language learners?

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