Gender Theory

Alusine M. Kanu DA

Gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, responsibilities, identities and expectations assigned to men and women. It contrasts with the fundamental biological and physiological differences between males and females, which are known as secondary sex characteristics. Gender roles differ between cultures and communities and over time. For many, gender is always thought about in binary terms: man/woman; masculine/feminine. Expectations of women and men are limited by these binaries, and are communicated through sex role stereotyping. These stereotypes limit gender appropriate behavior to a range of rigid roles which are assigned to women and men on the basis of their gender, for example, ‘women are nurturers’, and ‘men are aggressors’. These role expectations are subtle and deeply ingrained however there is great diversity in how individuals express their gender which frequently does not conform to these stereotypes. Not all women fit the stereotypical expectations of femininity, not all men fit those qualities associated with masculinity.

A theory of gender in communication1 is proposed by Dr. Anita Taylor, Emeritus Professor of Communication at George Mason University.  Primarily, Taylor generated explanations that account for the impact of gender in communication, whether the macro level of cultural discourse or the micro levels of interpersonal interaction or individual identity. In her literature review, Dr. Taylor pointed out that women should not be disadvantaged compared with men.  She added that the thing to note about the feminist movement is that there has never been one feminist theory or feminist movement.  Out of what seems like Feminist Theory is the development of Gender Theory.2 This illustrates complexity in coming up with a single theory.

Gender-related communication is much like cross-cultural communication in that the differences that being male or female create in communication and behaviors are potential barriers to communication effectiveness. The topic of gender and communication refers to the specific communication behaviors that a person uses because of being either male or female. In its demand for equality for women, “feminism sets itself in opposition to most cultures on earth.”  “Multiculturalism demands respect for all cultural traditions, while feminism,” according to Cohen and Howard (1999) “respects only traditions that indeed deserve respect”.3 Since we are destined to live in a two-gender world, and because many of our most significant interactions will be with people of the opposite gender, it is self evident that this area of study is important.  Add to this idea the finding that women’s communication is treated differently—and usually valued less-than men’s communication, and you can readily see that a basic inequality exists in society.  This inequality leads to women’s relative absence from top positions in virtually every area of academic, business, civic, and political life.  Not only is this situation unfair to women, it also costs every society in which it occurs untold amounts of energy because only part of society’s resources are being used. Studying gender and communication can help everyone to understand the realities of gender-related differences in communication instead of perpetuating assumptions about male-female communication.  Knowledge about gender and communication can help you become aware of unwarranted stereotyping and make it your goal to treat all people as individuals.

There are probably as many definitions of feminism as there are individuals.  The meanings assigned to the word range from stereotypes of man-hating, bra-burning radicals to people who recognize the equal value of all human beings and life forms and who seek to diminish oppression of all sorts.  However you define feminism, you would probably agree that it is concerned with gender and gender inequities.  That broad agreement would be shared by most that identify themselves as feminist scholars, although they do widely different kinds of research.4 Feminist theories have roots in Western society at least as far back as the early 1800s when some women first challenged prevailing social definitions of women.  At that time, the central issues were the rights to vote, to own property, to participate in university education, and to engage in gainful employment.  Today different issues are of concern to feminists.  Women in the United States and other first-world countries have the rights to vote, own property, attend universities and pursue paid work.  What they don’t have is equal representation in the lawmaking institutions of society, equal respect and equal treatment in the classroom, equal pay in work, and equal opportunities for professional employment and advancement.  For the most part, women also don’t have equal participation from their male partners in the responsibilities of homemaking and child care.

The continuing inequities between women and men in private and public life are the focus of feminist critique and feminist theories.  Many people who have not studied feminist scholarship mistakenly believe it concentrates on women and men.  Although the sexes do receive attention from feminist scholars, they are not the focus of inquiry.  Instead, gender is the primary concept of feminist work.  Gender is a socially created system of values, identities and activities that are prescribed for women and men.  Unlike sex, which is biologically determined, gender is socially constructed.  Unlike sex, which defines an individual characteristic, gender refers to socially produced meaning that is imposed on individuals, but is not an innate property of individuals.  Unlike sex, which is absolute and permanent (unless radical surgery is undergone), gender is fluid, variable across cultures and eras in a single culture, and is subject to continuous change.5

Feminist theorists note that gender refers to deeply ensconced social relations that define women and men and structure relationships between them.  For example, U. S. culture expects men to assertive and women to be deferential, men to be independent and women to be relationship oriented, men to be physically strong and women to be physically attractive, men to be sexually knowledgeable and active and women to be sexually innocent and discriminating, men to be emotionally controlled and women to be emotionally expressive.  These broad social expectations exemplify the cultural character of gender.  The values placed on being men or women are culture-specific, and everyday customs reflect these values.  In some parts of Africa, women are men’s treasured possessions.  In parts of India, women do not eat at the table with men; they are served separately after the men have finished eating.6 In Vietnam women eat smaller portions of food than men, regardless of their hunger.7 and of course, in some cultures women wear veils and are completely isolated from the world of men.  Not only do gender values differ, but so too do our ways of being masculine and feminine. 

Although many Americans are brought up to believe that men are naturally more aggressive, more logical, and less emotional than women, in some cultures this pattern is reversed.  Edward Hall tells us that in Iran, it is men who read poetry, express their emotions freely, and act on intuition rather than logic; women on the other hand, are considered to be coldly practical.8  Today’s theorists examine gender through a more cultural perspective, not disregarding biological or psychological influences, but focusing on the larger cultural influences. Dr. Taylor achieved a desired balance between theory and practice in Gender Theory.  She recommends that students should be analytical when studying Gender Theory.  To achieve this, she introduced propositions of the theory of gender in communication, gender lenses and the hierarchy principle.  With the tools afforded by methodological diversity, exploration is encouraged.

Propositions of the Theory of Gender in Communications

Taken together, the gender lenses provide cultural natives in the U. S. with a view of the world in which gender is an essential, but usually unseen part of every communicative interaction.

  1. Gender is a fundamental mental schema that affects communication
  2. Gender often, perhaps even usually, operates in communication at a subtext level.
  3. Language and communication reflect a culture’s gender lenses.
  4. The particular gender impacts in communication result from frames applied by the individuals involved, the culture from which each comes and within which the communication takes place, the specific situation, and the interactions between and among the individuals involved.
  5. A fundamental subtext of communication in cultures that employ a gendered hierarchy principle is variable valuing and ranking of things seen to be gendered.
  6. Cultures with an androcentric hierarchy principle value things that are male or male-identified.

Gender Lenses

Androcentrism is male centeredness—the equation of what is male or masculine with what is standard.  Androcentrism sees male strength as standard and therefore, women as the weaker sex.  It assumes that life forms are male unless proven otherwise and that the way men do things is the norm. The second gender lens is gender polarization.  This perspective shares the assumption that there are two—and only two—unchanging genders:  males develop and do masculine gender; females develop and do feminine gender.  These assumptions create a lens because the presumed dichotomous relationship between male and female becomes the organizing principle for the social life of the culture.  It is expected that males and females will differ, will do different things, will make heterosexual marriages, and will have children who will then be taught appropriate dichotomous roles. A third gender lens is biological essentialism.  That researchers have devoted years of study in a continuing attempt to answer questions about differences between women and men demonstrates the power of the biological essentialism lens.  Its power is also demonstrated by the continuing argument that biology causes a whole variety of human behavior, including human communication patterns.

Heterosexual Essentialism

Taylor argues that there is a fourth gender lens.  This lens is the premise of heterosexual essentialism.  The expectation is that males will be attracted to females and only to females; females will be attracted to males and only to males.  The belief is that so-called normal people naturally behave in these ways.  Heterosexuality is seen as the way biology predisposed individuals, hence the essentialist label. Clearly, dominant U. S. culture has construed gender relations as essentially heterosexual.  Such constructions are deep within our scientific, philosophical and cultural understandings of “how things are”.  Thus, it has been assumed that those without the natural sexual attractions are deviants.  Thus, a generally shared cultural belief has been that to be homosexual or bisexual is to be against the norm.  Virtually every cultural institution is built around the assumption of heterosexual relationships.  Marriage, an institution thought to be central to social functioning, is construed as being only between heterosexual couples.  Family, an institution believed essential to maintaining a healthy culture, is construed as consisting only of heterosexual unions.  Most people believe that children who grow up in a household composed of committed partners of a single sex have not been in a family.  Recent challenges to the supremacy of this lens have been made; but on the whole, it remains a dominant perspective.

The Hierarchy Principle

Taylor uses the Hierarchy Principle to illustrate that sexism in research is one manifestation of dehumanized view of people.  The Hierarchy Principle talks of the fact that to be different from a norm is to be deficient.  The idea is that the world is viewed from a male perspective, such as assuming that power over others is something everybody wants. The Hierarchy Principle is a cognitive schema, perhaps among the most important in influencing how we construe the world to be.  Based on Taylor’s data, without the Hierarchy Principle, Androcentrism and gender polarization could describe separate but equal spheres.  She adds that equality will be exceptionally difficult for those whose thought structures are built upon English.  English thinkers almost compulsively rank any two items seen as related.  Hence, male and female, or masculine and feminine, are virtually never thought of by native speakers as simply different.  Taylor reports that until the English postulate of hierarchy is at least weakened, one of any polarized pair will be seen as best, more appropriate, and more standard.  The Hierarchy Principle impacts communication in more ways than through gender.  Think of a culture developed with the same postulates, but without the androcentric lens.  Give it, for example, a gynocentric lens.  Number will still be important; one still best; but one would be feminine.  The culture would be matriarchal, but as long as the impulse to rank remains (e.g., as long as one is best), gender polarization and inequality would remain. 

This is a double standard because identical behaviors, traits, or situations are treated in different ways, such as viewing interruptions during conversations by women as indicating poor listening ability and interruptions by men as indicating social power. This analysis of the role of hierarchical thinking is essential in a theory of gender in communication.  Given that the culture in which we currently live applies the Hierarchy Principle with an androcentric lens, our language, our thinking, and almost all other aspects of culture that impact communication will rank the genders with masculine preferred.  Hence understanding the lenses lies at the heart of any useful theory of gender in communication. Taylor’s Gender Theory is a statement about the perceived reality of women.  It is a construction of knowledge and experience.  By justifying the truth of the feminist claim that women have been and are oppressed, she developed Gender Theory through the establishment of definite connections among observable phenomena.  The material is well presented and readable, as she serves as a catalyst to bring different feminist voices.

In judging a theory of gender in communication, one can come to the conclusion that the set of applications of rules of inference are effectively defined.  The logical axioms of the theory of gender in communication, gender lenses, heterosexual essentialism, and the Hierarch Principle are effectively defined.  The theory gives rise to ideas and facts and conceptualization of those facts to features, and from their consistency and fitness in the established patterns of meaning. Men and women view intimate relationships differently.  In spite of major cultural changes in male-female relations, basic differences remain.  One of the most obvious differences is the way males and females regard verbal expressions of intimate feelings.  Men and women have a difficult time understanding one another, not because they don’t try, but because they have developed fundamentally different personalities and ways of looking at relationships.  In contrast to explanations that focus almost exclusively on culture or biology or psychology, Taylor argues for a complex blend of cultural fact, psychological development and the adaptation of social institutions, regardless of gender.  We have a good reason to accept a universal proposition when we deduce it from a true theory or from a more comprehensive generalization which is true.


  1. Taylor, A.  A Proposal for a Theory of Gender in Communication.  Unpublished.  July, 1996.

     2.   Ibid.

     3.   Cohen, Joshua and Matthew Howard. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?  Princeton  NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1999

     4.   Wood, J. T. “Feminist Scholarship and the Study of Personal Relationships,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.  1995, 12, pp. 103-121.

     5.   Wood, J. T. “Bringing Different Voices in the Classroom,” National Women’s Studies Association Journal.  1993a 5, pp. 82-93.

     6    Samovar, Larry A., Richard E. Porter, and Nemi, C.  Jain.  Understanding Intercultural Communication. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth), 1981, p. 119.

     7.  Carley, H. Dodd.  Dynamics of Intercultural Communication.  2nd Edn.  (Dubuque, IA:  Brown), 1987, p. 45

     8.  Hall, Edward T.  The Silent Language.  (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday), 1959, p. 67.

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