A new study tackles the myth that "men are direct while women are tentative." I have to confess, it's one gender stereotype I used to believe.
Women's speech has long been judged differently from men's — women are typically expected to be warmer, friendlier, and more polite. As an undergraduate and grad student, I was keenly aware of these expectations, and how they played out in the classroom. I felt that my female classmates spoke less directly than their male peers, were more likely to begin their comments with "this is just my opinion," or "I could be wrong, but..." This always bothered me, as I felt that women were shortchanging themselves, essentially asking that their words be taken a little less seriously. I prided myself on not hedging my statements — as a political choice but also the classroom is one of the few social arenas where I feel comfortable being really assertive — and I did take a certain amount of mild hazing from my male peers for what I interpreted as my directness. But maybe I was wrong.
In a recent study, Nicholas Palomares, assistant professor of communication at UC Davis, ask students to write e-mails about a variety of topics, some gender-neutral and some stereotypically male or female. Palomares measured the "tentativeness" of the e-mails by counting phrases like "sort of," "I may be wrong," and "don't you think?" He found no difference in tentativeness when students were writing about gender-neutral topics, like restaurant. But women became more tentative when writing about stereotypically masculine things (like changing a tire), and men did so when they discussed "feminine" things. The effect was especially pronounced when students e-mailed members of the opposite sex. The study's press release gives this rather cute example, from a man: "… maybe girls prefer the quality of products at Sephora over other major department stores? I don't know."
So was I imagining the tentativeness in my female peers? It's possible. Perhaps I was so used to what Palomares calls the "stereotype that men are direct while women are tentative" that I heard hesitation where there was none, or that I ignored hedging statements coming from men. And when I thought of myself as being admirably forthright, I may have just been arrogant — something I've seen plenty of male students get criticized for as well.
Then again, it would be interesting to learn how classroom settings compare to the e-mail situation Palomares set up. Are academic topics gender-neutral, or are they gendered, like cars or makeup? Are women more likely to be tentative about math or science, which are still seen as stereotypically masculine? While girls who go to all-female schools are reportedly more confident in their public speaking abilities, and many say that single-gender education improves girls' assertiveness, I'd like to see a rigorous study of how boys, girls, men, and women speak in mixed-gender classrooms. In-person, group interactions are far different from e-mail, and these types of interactions may impose stricter gender norms on both sexes.
Interestingly, I've found myself being incredibly tentative while writing this post. Should I even write it at all? Should I mention my own experiences? Is being tentative even a bad thing? Maybe this is the priming effect psych researchers talk about, or maybe I'm a lot less direct than I've always thought. Or maybe I need to stop using the word maybe before this whole thing dissolves into a meta-analytical soup. Look: women should get to state their knowledge and opinions directly without getting judged for it. One way to advocate for this freedom is to speak up, without apologies or hedges — and to support women who do the same. We shouldn't assume that women are more tentative than men, but we should make sure that schools and boardrooms and the halls of Congress are places where everyone can say what they mean. Also, yeah, Sephora is better.