What is Gender Sensitive Communication?


Communication is the process by which people transfer information. Communication takes many forms, such as spoken, written, symbolic and non-verbal. All of these forms of communication are subject to interpretation based on the speaker and the receiver, and when both parties are not on the same page, it causes problems.

Language is a powerful tool that can be used to help people reach their full potential or diminish dreams.

Our methods of communication can bring us together or they can drive us apart depending on how the message is delivered and received. Social and cultural differences can contribute to misunderstandings when people have different styles of communication or are different genders, ages, races, or classes. We are going to focus on the ways in which differences and gender can create problems for communication and then explore ways in which to neutralize some of the gendered language use.

At work, language is the primary method of communication used to do business, develop plans, and convey ideas. However, language does not merely reflect the way we think, it also shapes our thinking. The way in which we use language tells other people not only the way we think but also the way we think about them. In the workplace, this can help us cultivate connections to our co-workers or alienate our team members. When it comes to talking about gendered communication, it's important to recognize the ways in which language is used to shape the reality of people around us.

An important aspect of communication practices involves status, which refers to one's position, prestige, and/or reputation and is determined by outside sources and power, which refers to one's access to and control of resources, and as a result, the ability to influence people or outcomes. In the workplace, those who have both status and power have distinct advantages when it comes to engaging in conversations.

Examples of the way in which status and power can present obstacles for effective communication show up in interactions between children and adults, where the adult is listened to and believed more readily than the child, in classrooms where we are more interested in hearing what the instructor says than what other students say, and in board rooms where attendees are more interested in hearing what the boss has to say than what mid-level managers do. In all of these examples, the balance tips in favor of the person who has the most favorable status and the most power.

When language and status and/or power intersect, they often are used to shape our thinking about the people we work with. When they result in negative stereotypes, the effects can be especially damaging. If words and expressions that imply that women are inferior to men are constantly used, then thoughts of inferiority can become part of our mindset. But when the words and expressions are used by people who possess status and/or power, they can result in lines of thinking or even policies that put women at a distinct disadvantage in the workplace.

For example, a long held belief was that girls weren't good at math. This allegedly was backed up with scientific studies, ostensibly done by men, that claimed boys were better at spacial relationships and performing calculations while girls were better at verbal and reading skills. Over time and with enough repetition, parents, educators, and girls themselves came to believe that girls were not adept at math. However, as researchers questioned these studies and began to dig deeper to try and understand exactly why girls weren't good at math, they found some surprising information. The math gap between girls and boys wasn't nearly as wide as previously thought. In fact, plenty of boys who scored lower than girls on math-based tests were entering mathematically based fields of study like engineering, medicine, and computer science. Researchers also discovered that girls weren't doing worse in math overall but just scored lower on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT and GRE, which led researchers to conclude that something about the structure of the tests caused the disparity, not girls' inability to do math. As sociologists began to study the learning environments, they realized that socialization patterns meant that girls developed their abilities by adhering to rules more often than boys did, and when those in positions of authority believed that girls were not good at math--whether or not they actually told girls this--girls tended to internalize the message as part of a system of rules.

As more women began to attend college, they began questioning the logic of the belief that girls aren't good at math, and as they did, the beliefs and language governing math-based fields of study began to change. These days, the language surrounding STEM education decidedly is gender neutral making it clear that math is for boys and girls, and a wide range of programs designed to increase the number of girls choosing to pursue math-based careers have flourished as fields like engineering and computer science actively attempt to recruit girls. These changes clearly illustrate the need to adjust our language when our ideas evolve.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Gender Sensitivity Training course?

Another way in which differences assert themselves in the process of communication are through the ways in which we are taught to communicate according to our gender. Descriptive and prescriptive forms of gendered communication mean that often times, men and women are using different methods of communication to achieve the same results, and the intersectionality of identity, such as race, class, sexual orientation, etc., can mean that these methods cross and recross depending on where the sender and recipient are situated.

According to language experts, some of the ways in which men and women differ in their forms of communication are the following.

  • Men engage in reporting while women engage in building relationships.
  • When making requests, women tend to be indirect. A female supervisor might ask, "Could you do this by 5 pm?" Something more direct and to the point is more typical of the male supervisor. "This needs to be done by 5 pm."
  • Women listen and seek to understand information by asking questions. Men tend to listen and generate solutions.
  • Women often say "I'm sorry" to express concern about something rather than to issue an apology or accept blame. Men, however, may interpret this as the latter.
  • People tend to judge men for what they say and do and they judge women by how they look and dress.

These differences do not apply to all men or all women in all situations. Furthermore, no one's communication style is absolute as each person's communication style may change in response to social context and the styles of the individuals with whom they are interacting. By realizing that differences such as these may exist, we ameliorate the chances of miscommunication and conflict.

Addressing the differences in communication styles in a way that recognizes both styles but clearly identifies how and why you are using one or the other is an excellent way of eliminating confusion and helping your team members understand what's expected of them. Because they are designed to clarify intent, these techniques will work for both men and women.

When deciding between reporting versus relationship building, understand what it is you're aiming to accomplish and then engage in the style of communication that furthers that aim. If your goal is to build relationships and develop mutual understanding, then engage in "rapport talk" by encouraging others to join the conversation. However, if your goal is to demonstrate your expertise, you will need to engage in "report talk." Clearly express yourself and don't apologize for not letting others interrupt.

When you're making decisions or giving orders, ask questions only when you actually are looking for input from your team but make sure you are clear about who will make the final decision. If you are looking to reach a consensus, then you need to make sure your team understands that the input will be used to reach a decision. Mixing signals by asking questions when you are making a definite statement or vice versa undermines the ability of your team members to trust that you say what you mean and mean what you say.

Understand what it is the speaker wants you to do before you offer input. For example, Kira says to her colleagues Jamal and Christina, "I'm so frustrated by the marketing department's refusal to get the ad agency's proposal back to me. I told them I needed it by close of business yesterday and I still haven't received it!" Jamal responds, "Kira, you should contact the VP immediately and if that doesn't get you what you need, you should take it up the chain of command. " While Christina replies, "That's incredibly inconsiderate of them! What do you want to do about it?" Jamal is looking to help Kira solve the problem while Christina is trying to figure out how Kira wants to solve the problem. To improve your listening skills, ask the speaker what they want you to do by posing a direct question like, "Do you want me to listen or give you advice?" This will eliminate confusion on both sides and gives the speaker a chance to actively choose the response they want or perhaps don't want.

When handling conflicts and disagreements, it is important to understand that gender stereotypes play a major part in how men and women approach conflict and resolution. Some researchers argue that women are naturally or socially adverse to conflict and tend to shy away from it but it's important to dig deeper into this conclusion. While both men and women can be comfortable with disagreeing in public, the consequences for women being seen as "combative" or "hostile" often lead them to seek consensus rather than engage in lively disagreements or debates. This is not a natural way of being but the result of prescriptive stereotypes that require women to "behave." One of the ways in which this can be changed is for both men and women to support and encourage women who take strong positions rather than expecting them to hang back and take both sides.

Another challenge in business communication is that so much communication is done via electronic message--specifically email, text or instant messages--which tends to remove vocal inflection and visual cues, and often relies on the recipient's ability to accurately interpret the sender's explicit and implicit intention. This form of impression management, the way people manage and attempt to control the impressions they make on others and how others see them, can be more difficult for women because of the added layer of gendered expectations that accompany electronic communication. As a result, women often spend a great deal of time composing electronic messages that walk the line between sterile and overly familiar in order to ensure that recipients do not get the wrong message.

In a study of work related emails, researchers found that women used far more exclamation points than men. Though initially academics assumed women were just more excitable, a 2006 study discovered that women use more exclamation points in order to seem friendly in electronic communications for work. Often, their use is employed voluntarily as a method of increasing the likelihood of a positive response though sometimes it is mandated by employers.

Berkley sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild, first defined the term "emotional labor" in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. She defined the physical and mental work women do and are paid for in their jobs as different from the emotional labor, which is extra. She argued that women manage their feelings and the expression of these feelings in order to do their job. Exclamation points and the other ways they express they emotions in emails can be a form of emotional labor for both men and women.

Linguistics experts explain that women tend to use a range of different features in online communication from extended punctuation to capital letters to emojis as a means of expressing enthusiasm and buffering potential negative responses. Think about what would happen if you texted someone, "Night out?" and they replied, "Okay." You'd probably think they weren't very enthusiastic about going out that night. The problem with this is when it moves from the personal realm to the workplace where women are expected to shoulder the emotional burden of electronic communication or pay the price. However, there is a fine line between emotionally open and unprofessional and not all professionals agree to where they end and begin. What they do agree upon is that shouldering the emotional burden of ensuring that their messages are received in the spirit intended and taken seriously often is a time-consuming endeavor.

Ensuring and improving effective communication in the workplace requires constant practice and self-examination. In order to improve communication skills, people need to be open to feedback because they may not know when they're communicating clearly or poorly and they need to ask probing questions. Think through these following questions.

  • What is a specific purpose of the communication?
  • Am I considering my entire audience?
  • Are the content--what's being sent--and style--how its being sent--in line with my professional identity?
  • Am I using language that is neutral and inclusive?
If the answer to any of these questions is unclear or not in line with the professional image you want to project, then you need to seek feedback on your communication style. It's tempting to read this as an indictment of women's communication style in the workplace, but actually, it's yet another example of how gender stereotypes and expectations filter through every aspect of the work environment. While it's tempting to see this as yet another way in which women have to overcome or work around gender stereotypes, it's more helpful to take a look back and see how far women have come in a relatively short period of time.