Language and Gender: The Dominance Model

In my last post, I briefly introduced ‘The Deficit Model‘ approach to perceived differences between language and gender. As clearly as possible, I tried to explain that this is just one theory surrounding language and gender. Note too my deliberate use of the word ‘perceived’ in my first sentence. There are linguists who would disagree that these differences even exist, such as Deboarh Cameron who wrote about this topic in ‘The myth of Mars and Venus.’

So, onto the Dominance model. Whereas the deficit model might suggest that so-called features of ‘women’s talk’ suggest a weakness in the language, the dominance model suggests that men’s use of language ‘dominates’ the weaker female sex. Partly this stems from their higher position in the social hierarchy. Thus, either consciously or subconsciously, men use language to exert power and maintain their dominance in society.

One linguist associated with this theory is Pamela Fishman. In her study, she taped mixed sex conversations between 3 couples. The tape recorders were set up to capture ‘natural’ non-planned conversations, though the participants could choose when to switch the recorder on and off. In her study (Fishman1983), Fishman observed that men often maintained control over conversations and that women asks many more questions, almost as if they were asking permission to speak. She also found that when men initiate conversations, they were much more likely to succeed and that ‘women had much more trouble getting conversations going.’ Her conclusions suggested that women do much more ‘work’ in keeping conversations going (asking questions, supporting men with their speech) whereas men tend to control the conversation, helping reinforce their dominance and social power.

Another study which links to the Dominance Model was completed by Zimmerman and West in 1975. You can read the whole study here, but there is a helpful summary online which you can listen to here. Zimmerman and West recorded everyday conversations in informal settings, such as coffee shops and cafes. Their study reinforced the dominance model, finding that in mixed sex conversations men interrupted women more, gave delayed minimal responses to women and also tended to talk more. In mixed sex conversations, women were silent more and for longer periods.

Next, we’ll look at the Difference Model.

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