Gender Roles at Work

“Mansplain – The Statue” (not original title)

I picked up this pamphlet at the Boston (A) Book Fair, thinking it would involve people talking about gender roles and what they mean to them personally. That seemed really interesting to me!

…Sadly that wasn’t the case.

Instead, this essay by Corrine Monet (sorry, but I couldn’t find it online!) touches on a related discussion about how conversations between the two genders (two?) go. Unsurprisingly, Monnet’s research led her to the conclusion that cis men seem to talk over cis women more than the other way around. (I shall spare the reader the qualifier from here on for sake of ease, but just know that this study is limited in its notion and representation of gender.)

First, I want to denote that the “at work” in the title is making use of “work” in a broader sense than I usually use. Here, I’m not so much referring to “constrained effort for a promised reward” in an economic context, like the workplace. But rather the effort that women put into conversations when they talk to men. In this sense, women have to labor harder in conversations than if they were read as male.

Reasons for this go back to what males are generally read as or what’s associated with “masculinity”. Things like assertiveness, domination, control, etc. A lot of popularly associated traits of being a man have to do with situating your internment to your own needs. And sometimes, when it comes to property you own, or something that’s been rented to you, etc. then it may not be such a bad idea to see yourself as in control.

But when it comes to conversations with other people who are mostly certainly not your property, the ideas of masculinity can taint the abilities of men to fruitfully engage with others and vice versa. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen men talk over women, dismiss their concerns in subtle ways and interrupt them constantly throughout my life. I’m sure many have.

This isn’t something endogenous to men, of course. Women do it to other women and obviously women can do it to men as well. But the point is that when women do it, it’s often seen as being a “bitch” or being “manly” because they’re taking charge of the conversation. These are sexist double standards that cause women to labor even harder (emotionally and mentally) during conversations with particularly difficult men.

I don’t mean to suggest that men are somehow all in on this. Or that there is some sort of cabal of men who have come together to enforce patriarchical norms about conversations. The way that culture, media, governments and other institutions work in society are complex and likely not going to look as neat as that.

In any case though, it doesn’t need to be the case that men have intended anything for the consequences of gender roles to be ultimately harmful to the flow of conversations between women and men. Same goes for rape culture.

If you’re curious of the particular research that Money is relying on, a study entitled Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversations by Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West is one of the main reference points.

Before citing the study, it’s important to note that statistically the data itself isn’t easily translated to general fact. And even if it was, as the authors themselves note, the stability of such findings would be borne out by future studies and not simply just this one study by itself.

That said, it has an interesting model of conversation and produces some results worth considering:

virtually all the interruptions and overlaps are by the male speakers (98% and 100% respectively).

…we found that 5 out of 11 male-female segments contained a total of 9 overlaps 18 percent of the segments contained 66 percent of the overlaps. Al were, of course, done by males.

..Ten of the 11 male-female segments exhibited interruptions, ranging from a low of 2 to a high of 13 and averaging 4.2 per transcript. The segment containing 13 interruptions (27 percent of the total) occurred between female teaching assistant and a male undergraduate who repeatedly interrupted her attempts to explain a concept.

Obviously, the study is old (it was done in the 70s) and its sample size isn’t exactly huge. And if this is all Monet relied on in her essay, it would likely count for much. But she also cites a researcher from as far back as 1951 who also concludes that within heterosexual married couples men seem to talk more.

Monet also cites a 1983 study by Pamela Fishman called, Interaction: The Work Women Do (emphasis mine for obvious reasons) that finds similar results in terms of men and domination:

…the men usually set up the tape recorders and turned them on and off. Most significantly, some of the times the men turned the recorders on, they did so without their knowledge. The reverse never occurred.

In, addition, over the course of 7 hours women asked 150 questions and men asked nearly 60 which is almost a third of the questions from women. This is significant because questions or statements as questions often put the power into the hands of the other speaker. And sometimes (as Fishman notes) when women don’t mean to ask questions can come off as such because they are worried about how the dialogue will go otherwise.

The “minimal responses” (the “mm”, “uh-huh” and so on) for women were largely “support work” while men tended within the study to use it as a way to discourage further conversation. An example would be a man simply saying, “yeah” in a monotone fashion with seemingly no interest after his partner has talked for a turn.

For statements, women produced nearly half of what men did and got responded to a lot less than men.

Another 1983 study, again by West and Zimmerman, called Small Insults: A Study of Interruption in Cross-Sex Conversations Between Unacquainted Persons, Monet tells us how:

West states that men’s interruptions are:

First off, followed by men continuing to speak about the same subject mater, while women retract.

Secondly, by a failure of men to recognize the subject matter introduced by the woman speaker. By ignoring the ideas introduced by the woman speaker, men refuse to yield to them. By going back to their own subject matter, the seize the role of the speaker and give their speech priority.

In addition, West concludes in her study that:

In other words, the distribution of power in the workplace, the division of labor in the family, as well as in other institutions run parallel to the dynamic we see here on a day to day level. In short, we can distinguish concrete and structured means by which the dominate position enjoyed by men in other environments compares with the conversations they have with women. (emphasis added)

I could continue and denote the 2007 meta-study that affirmed an imbalance between the two, advantaging men.

But to be fair  there’s also a 2007 study that finds putting women in more collaborative contexts may influence who talks more, namely women. But in general situations, men and women were found to not have much of a difference in how much they talked.

And then there’s also the issue of mansplaining…which I won’t get into but instead link an interesting blog post on.

In either case, it still seems untrue that women talk more than men. The evidence seems slightly mixed on who actually talks more in a given day but within conversations between men and women is what is matters here.

And it’s there that men, the slackers compared to women in conversations, ironically win no favor from me.


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