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Should we be studying ‘gender differences’? No – and yes

One of the hardest things about gender study still appears to be the need to challenge the ‘common sense’ view that it is all about differences between women and men, and for gender and language study that it’s all about differences in the way women and men talk. This is not only a popular, public view, but also one shared by undergraduate and new postgraduate students of the subject, and indeed, often, applied linguists not familiar with up-to-date thinking about gender. There are many intellectual reasons why ‘differences between women and men’ should not be the focus of gender and language study, but there are ideological ones too, perhaps expressed best by Deborah Cameron’s claim that “every word we say on the subject of difference just underlines the salience and the importance of a division we are ultimately striving to end” (1992: 40).

And while there now appears to be much greater awareness of the importance for the study of gender and talk of context, conversational goal, and other social identities, as well as of intra-group variation and inter-group similarities, and accordingly that we can no longer say ‘women talk like this, men talk like that’, the temptation to seek ‘differences’ seems to remain.

Why is this? One reason is that, however much we are told to the contrary, finding a ‘difference’ – especially, in quantitative work, a statistically significant one – still feels rather satisfying. And this is true of those who have spent much of their adult lives critiquing socially constructed gender tendencies and celebrating similarity. A more profound reason though is probably the salience of gender all around us. And, paradoxically, a way to analyse and challenge this is to look at, yes, gender difference – but gender difference in a very specific sense.

The gender difference referred to in the first paragraph – and what most students of language and gender mean by gender difference – is gender tendencies in naturally-occurring talk, spontaneous or scripted. This is to draw on a speaker-focussed understanding of gender. But gender can also be understood as a set of ideas about women, men, boys, girls and gender relations, and sometimes as an ideology. Such ideas are manifested in the choices made in all sorts of talk, but also in the choices made in the creation of media texts (such as newspaper editorials), images (in magazines and newspapers, print and digital, still and moving), and multimodal texts. When gender is explored in the contexts of media texts it is often seen as ‘representation’, but mention of women, men, boys, girls or gender relations in talk counts as gender representation too: women can be talked about, i.e. represented, as better communicators or better at language learners than men, men as not responsible for their actions in the presence of a woman in a short skirt, or as less capable parents than women, to give a few examples. Here, I would argue that what is at issue is not the speaker of the relevant utterances, the writer of the article, or designer of the advertisement, and hence not ‘speaker gender’. What is important is what is said, and how (in other words, discourse), rather than by whom. Looking at represented gender differences in different sorts of texts is not the same as looking for gender differences in the talk of speakers or written/multimodal texts of writers and designers. But represented gender differences need to be studied: identified (even ‘revealed’), described, analysed, interpreted, critiqued, evaluated and often challenged. In informal, private talk they may be iterative, recycling stereotypical notions of, say, women as gossipy, and hence cementing and ‘normalising’ these. Gender representations in media texts have a different sort of power – not least because these representations are created by the relatively powerful, with interests to protect, and the notion of hegemonic masculinity is important here. But media representations are often also reiterative; and, indeed, representations of gender difference in informal, private talk may support, and be supported by, comparable representations in the media.

In short, represented gender difference can be seen as constitutive, i.e. as helping maintain actual gender difference, and even as helping gender difference adapt to changing times and circumstances. For those of us who consider that almost all distinctions by gender in society are ultimately unhelpful (for boys and men as well as for women and girls), if not positively discriminatory and disadvantaging, we must look at the role of represented gender difference in creating and supporting these. At the same time, we must make a clear distinction between speaker (and writer)-oriented differences, in the production of naturally-occurring talk, scripted talk, and written and multimodal texts, on the one hand, and represented differences, in which the biological sex of the speaker, writer or creator is of far less importance than how gender is represented in talk, writing or design, on the other.


Cameron, Deborah. Feminism and Linguistic Theory (2nd edn.) London: Macmillan, 1992.


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