Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author

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Lessons in Gender and Communication from Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In":

Apr 11, 2013

Do Women and Men Communicate Differently?

You have likely heard of Sheryl Sandberg's new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Win. In short, the book, according to a NPR story, "critiques the lack of women in top leadership positions in business, government and beyond" and the author "advises women to 'lean in' to their careers, embracing ambition and resisting the tendency to hold back due to actual and anticipated challenges in negotiating work-life balance." As I note later in this post, research has found that men tend to lean in more during interactions than women, but, what does this mean?

Well, Sandberg's "critiques" have garnered their own criticisms. One of the critiques I heard was Maureen Corrigan's review in NPR's Fresh Air. She stated: "Most of the book is kind of blah, composed of platitudinous-corporate-speak-intermixed-with-pallid-anecdotes." While I have not read Sandberg's book, the general premise and the conversations it has spurred connect to much of what I write about in my textbook, Communication in the Real World, about gender and communication.

Although gender stereotypes are perpetuated in the media and public discourse and internalized by many people, men and women actually communicate much more similarly than differently. The book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus makes it seem like men and women aren’t even species that hail from the same planet. The media is quick to include a blurb from a research study indicating again how men and women are “wired” to communicate differently. However, the overwhelming majority of current research on gender and communication finds that while there are differences between how men and women communicate, there are far more similarities.[ii]

Even the language we use to describe the genders sets up dichotomies. That’s why I suggest that my students use the term "other gender instead of the commonly used opposite sex. I have a mom, a sister, and plenty of female friends, and I don’t feel like any of them are the opposite of me. Perhaps a better title for a book would be Women and Men Are Both from Earth.

Gender and communication scholar Kathryn Dindia contests the notion that men and women are from different planets and instead uses another analogy. She says men are from South Dakota and women are from North Dakota. Although the states border each other and are similar in many ways, state pride and in-group identifications lead the people of South Dakota to perceive themselves to be different from the people of North Dakota and vice versa. But if we expand our perspective and take the position of someone from California or Illinois, North Dakotans and South Dakotas are pretty much alike.[i]

This comparison is intended to point out that in our daily lives we do experience men and women to be fairly different, but when we look at the differences between men and women compared to the differences between humans and other creatures, men and women are much more similar than different. For example, in terms of nonverbal communication, men and women all over the world make similar facial expressions and can recognize those facial expressions in one another. We use similar eye contact patterns, gestures, and, within cultural groups, have similar notions of the use of time and space.

As I reiterate throughout my book, it’s important to understand how gender influences communication, but it’s also important to remember that in terms of communication, men and women are about 99 percent similar and 1 percent different. Of course this doesn't change the fact that the value we place on men and women in our society does differ and that sexism and patriarchy are still very real parts of our culture.

Research has found some general differences in the communication between men and women, but, again, these are generalizations that can be informative; however, they don't apply to everyone and we shouldn't expect them to.

Gestures

  • Women use more gestures in regular conversation than do men, but men tend to use larger gestures than women when they do use them.
  • Men are, however, more likely to use physical adaptors like restless foot and hand movements, probably because girls are socialized to avoid such movements because they are not “ladylike.”

Posture

  • Men are more likely to lean in during an interaction than are women.
  • Women are more likely to have a face-to-face body orientation while interacting than are men.

Women’s tendency to use a face-to-face body orientation influences the general conclusion that women are better at sending and receiving nonverbal messages than men. Women’s more direct visual engagement during interactions allows them to take in more nonverbal cues, which allows them to better reflect on and more accurately learn from experience what particular nonverbal cues mean in what contexts.

These are just some of the insights that decades of gender and communication scholars have found, but unfortunately, the public and the press prefer to talk about sensationalist books that pander to stereotypical views of men and women from different planets.


[i] Brenda J. Allen, Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity, 2nd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2011), 55.

[ii] Peter A. Andersen, Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999), 106.