scholarly literature on sex differences in communication

Studying scholarly literature on sex differences in communication is insightful.  Popular books on sex differences usually lack solid scientific support but appeal to common sense.  They are easily understandable and occasionally amusing.  Reading excruciatingly detailed technical analysis of the scholarly weaknesses of these books indicates contrasting values in the scholarly marketplace.  For example, in an article entitled “‘You Just Don’t Have the Evidence’: An Analysis of Claims and Evidence in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand,” two communication scholars noted:

there is widespread agreement that gender differences in communication are typically small. This pattern is evident in the foregoing review of research in various areas {of communication} and has also been noted by other authors who have conducted similar reviews. For example, Canary and Hause (1993) reviewed 15 meta-analyses on various communications topics, summarizing more than 1,200 studies of gender differences in communication. The average effect size is small (average weighted d = .24) and accounts for about 1% of the variance. [1]

Effect sizes and shares of variance depend strongly on experimental design.[2]  Effect sizes and shares of variance from unnatural, laboratory experiments are thus difficult to interpret in relation to the ordinary behavior of men and women in ordinary life.  The cited meta-analysis, Canary and Hause (1993), summarized the scholarly situation in 1993:

The problem is that fifty years of research on the topic of sex differences in communication have provided no clear findings. … Is there any reason to research sex differences in communication? On both empirical and conceptual levels the answer is “no,” assuming current practices continue. [3]

This scholarship carefully preserved the possibility of doing further academic work in this area:

We believe there are sex differences in communication, but they are eluding us. Perhaps a definitive answer to the question of sex differences in communication will arrive within the next fifty years. [4]

This scholarly work also lamented the influence of sexual stereotypes on scholarly work, the polarization of the sexes in scholarly deliberation, scholars’ failure to distinguish clearly between sex (nature) and gender (nurture), a dearth of theory about gender, and excessive scholarly enthusiasm for studying sex differences.  As the popular adage goes, if what you’re doing isn’t succeeding, keep doing it until it succeeds.

stack of scholarly papers on sex differences

Meta-analysis and moving to a higher level of abstraction is a common scholarly tactic.  A communication scholar subject to harsh criticism for her view that women and men communicate differently declared:

The pervasiveness of agonism, that is, ritualized adversativeness, in contemporary western academic discourse is the source of both obfuscation of knowledge and personal suffering in academia. Framing of academic discourse as a metaphorical battle leads to a variety of negative consequences, many of which have ethical as well as personal dimensions. [5]

Recent scholarship has emphasized sex differences in competitiveness.  With a striking mix of positive and normative phrases, an economics article published in 2007 was entitled, “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?”[6]  Consider an alternative title of similar form: “Do Men Compete Vigorously? Are Women Too Averse to Competition?”  The latter title probably wouldn’t have been published, and almost surely wouldn’t have scored as many subsequent citations exploring the roots of gender inequality.  Another social scientist has queried:

What kind of motives are more likely to lead to good science: Competitive motives, like the motive J. D. Watson described in The Double Helix, to get the structure of DNA before Linus Pauling did? Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton has described recently to explain why he’s going into stem cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? [7]

Scholarly attempts to evaluate this question are likely to be less successful that past scholarly attempts to evaluate sex differences in communication.  Appealing to care for children, however, is a propitious social-rhetorical strategy.

Communication scholars need not step far from calculations of effect sizes in laboratory communication experiments to find more meaningful evidence of sex differences in communication.  From the 1970-1 to the 2010-11 academic years, the sex ratio of students receiving bachelor degrees in “communications, journalism, and related programs” in the U.S. rose from 0.55 women per man to 1.67 women per man.  Bachelor degrees awarded in communications, journalism, and related programs grew about seven times as rapidly as did bachelor degrees in all fields.  That rapid growth was relatively women-biased: the sex ratio in bachelor degrees conferred in communications, journalism, and related fields (1.67 in the 2010-11 school year) is much higher than the sex ratio for all bachelors degrees (1.34).[8]  In short, the academic discipline of communication has grown relatively strongly to serve predominately female students.  Communications scholars pondering sex differences in communication should consider those real-world facts.

In a jazz club the waitress recommended the crab cakes to me, and they turned out to be terrible. I was uncertain about whether or not to send them back. When the waitress came by and asked how the food was, I said that I didn’t really like the crab cakes. She asked, “What’s wrong with them?” While staring at the table, my husband answered, “They don’t taste fresh.” The waitress snapped, “They’re frozen! What do you expect?” I looked directly up at her and said, “We just don’t like them.” She said, “Well, if you don’t like them, I could take them back and bring you something else.” [9]

You should be able to enjoy the food you ordered in a restaurant.  You must be really upset.  You were so right to send those crab cakes back!

The evidence for sex differences in communication is voluminous, socially significant, and willfully disparaged.

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[1] Goldsmith & Fulfs (1999) p. 26, footnote omitted.  Id., p. 2, noted that Tannen (1990) had achieved huge market success:

The cover of the 1990 paperback edition proudly proclaims that the book has appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 4 years, generated more than 1.5 million copies, and received favorable reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Franscisco Chronicle. The book has been excerpted and cited for millions of readers in such popular magazines as Newsweek, Time, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, Working Woman, Ladies’ Home Journal, and People and in newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.

Following the success of the book, Tannen has made numerous television appearances and has written articles and book reviews in a wide variety of publications with large circulation, including Reader’s Digest, the Washington Post, McCall, USA Today, and New York Times Magazine, to name only a few.

[2] The effect sizes calculated in meta-analyses of social-scientific experiments typically depend on variables that are defined conventionally and that have little ecological significance. The variance observed depends greatly on the specific variable description. Consider, for example, a study of sex differences in height. If the study includes women and men both standing and mounted on horseback, then the effect size of sex on height will be much less than if just height standing is measured. MacGeorge et al. (2004) p. 148, Fig. 1, demonstrates the significance of this issue.  If the message type “change the subject” was not included in the experiment, the variance of “likelihood of use” would be much smaller, and the effect size of sex in the experiment would be much larger.  Moreover, sex differences in variance can be significant. Walker et al. (2006) documents cross-cultural sex differences in height, weight, and in the variance in bodily growth trajectories.  Using the “average within-sex standard deviation” (e.g. Hydep (2005) p. 582) in calculating effect sizes makes effect sizes even less interpretable in relation to actual human behavior in ordinary circumstances.

[3] Canary & Hause (1993) pp. 129, 141.

[4] Id. p. 141.

[5] Tannen (2002) p. 1651. Cf. Goldsmith & Fulfs (1999).

[6] Niederle & Vesterlund (2007).

[7] Spelke in Pinker & Spelke (2005).

[8] U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2012, Tables 348 and 310.  The sex ratio of female to male communications bachelor degree recipients peaked at 1.83 in the 2003-04 school year.  Across the seven years prior to that peak, communications degrees conferred grew much faster than all bachelor degrees conferred, with growth rates of 52% and 19%, respectively.  In the subsequent seven years, communications degrees conferred grew slightly slower than all bachelor degrees, with growth rates of 21% and 23%, respectively.  Thus the ratio of females to males receiving communications degrees has become less unequal as communications, journalism, and related fields have become much less attractive to students.  These data are gathered and summarized in the Communications Degrees Sex Bias Workbook (Excel version).

[9] Tannen (1990) p. 29.

[image] Douglas Galbi’s photograph.


Canary, Daniel J. and Kimberley S. Hause. 1993. “Is There Any Reason to Research Sex Differences in Communication?” Communication Quarterly 41(2): 129-144.

Goldsmith, Daena J. and Patricia A. Fulfs. 1999. “”You Just Don’t Have the Evidence”: An Analysis of Claims and Evidence in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand.” Communication Yearbook 22: 1-49.

Hyde, Janet Shibley. 2005. “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” American Psychologist 60(6): 581-592.

MacGeorge, Erina L., Angela R. Graves, Bo Feng, Seth J. Gillihan and Brant R. Burleson. 2004. “The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men’s and Women’s Provision of and Responses to Supportive Communication.” Sex Roles 50(3/4): 143-175.

Niederle, Muriel, and Lise Vesterlund. 2007. “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?“. Quarterly Journal of Economics. 122 (3): 1067-1101.

Pinker, Steven, and Elizabeth Spelke. 2005. “The Science of Gender and Science: Pinker vs. Spelke.”  Edge The Third Culture.

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation. New York, NY: Morrow.

Tannen, Deborah. 2002. “Agonism in academic discourse.” Journal of Pragmatics 34: 1651-1669.

Walker, Robert, Michael Gurven, Kim Hill, Andrea Migliano, Napoleon Chagnon, Roberta De Souza, Gradimir Djurovic, Raymond Hames, A. Magdalen Hurtado, Richard Kaplan, Karen Kramer, William J. Oliver, Claudia Valeggia and Taro Yamauchi. 2006. “Growth Rates and Life Histories in Twenty-Two Small-Scale Societies.” American Journal of Human Biology 18: 295-311.

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