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Gender Differences in Managerial Communications: Fact or Folk-Linguistics?

A response to Smeltzer and J. Werbels study Gender Differences in Managerial

Communications: Fact or Folk-Linguistics?

Devin Lowe
MGMT 647: Organizational Behavior and Development

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Article Summary
Gender Differences in Managerial Communication: Fact or Folk-Linguistics seeks to test
the qualitative and stylistic differences that have been purported to exist between genders. The
authors question the credibility of previous studies and state numerous times that there is a high
likelihood that these earlier studies were subject to the bias of their researchers. The assertion is
that many conclusions are opinion based and speculative according to personal experience rather
than quantifiable data. Using a sample group of 2nd year MBA students and their writing
examples, the authors rated the communication based on 16 dimensions. Final results showed
that there are significant differences between distinct managerial communication samples, but
not between genders.
Traditional thoughts on womens communications show a notably stereotypical
demonstration of ineffective communication characteristics. These characteristics include
verbosity, constrained vocabulary, and indirect requests (Thorne and Henley, 1975). The authors
at this point question the validity of the stereotypes in regard to writing style and quality. They
assert that folk-linguistics, or the common beliefs about a language, bias these previous studies
according to the experiences of those conducting the research. To mention a specific stereotype,
it is common to describe womens language as being weaker and less effective when
compared to that of a male.
In regards to how these biases occur, the supposition is made that the awareness of sex
differences cause observers to attribute differences to a message when none are truly present.
Beyond folk-linguistics, a second generalization is typically made and that is the cultural
stereotype. That is to say that if conjectural statements regarding the psychology of sexes exist,

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then there is the possibility that perceptions of communication can also be formed to be
consistent with these sex-role images. The example given is as follows:

If females are thought to be emotional, indecisive, submissive, supportive, and

interpersonally oriented, then it is natural that their speech is rated likewise. If males are
seen as behaving aggressively, objectively, bluntly, and decisively, then their
communication will probably be rated consistently with that sex role image.(pg 42)

Seeing that previous literature bases their data on speculation and personal experience the
authors conclude that the lacking empirical evidence of gender differences in communication in
relation to the gender of a sender or receiver necessitate answering the following questions with
their study:
1. Do females use a different communication style than males in managerial communication
2. Is the quality of females communication different from that of males in managerial
communication situations?
3. Do senders communication style and quality differ as a function of the receivers gender?

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The authors utilized a sample of 39 female and 40 male second-year MBA students that
had all completed a course in business communications during the program, native fluency in
English, and an average of 3.1 years in the workforce. This sample group wrote both a memo and
a letter according to a specific prompt. Written communication was chosen as the medium
because gender could easily be masked. Dependent variables were defined through a content
analysis of the two samples content analysis being the study of the message itself, with no
observance of either the sender or receiver. Content was rated based on nine bi-polar dimensions:
Positive Aspects

Negative Aspects

Uses active voice

Uses passive voice

Has a you orientation

Has a me orientation

Has a positive tone

Has a negative tone

Uses a direct approach

Uses an indirect approach

Is easily understood

Is ambiguous

Is extremely persuasive

Is not persuasive

Is overall a high-quality memo Is overall a low-quality memo

Has a personal tone

Has an impersonal tone

Has a requesting tone

Has a demanding tone

(Smeltzer and Werbel, 1986)

Results and conclusion
Results demonstrated no significant differences in gender communication among MBA
students, but did show differences between written managerial communication samples outside
of the gender variable. Neither sender or receiver gender had a strongly correlated affect on

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distinguishable gender differences between communications. This study refutes the assumption
that qualitative differences exist between how men and how women communicate.
To conclude, biased research put into practice can lead to false expectations and ineffective
management, and despite the small sample the study shows that the prevalence of assumptions
about gender differences should be examined more critically.

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Comparison and contrast to MGMT 647 Text and Materials
The Smeltzer and Werbel study is certainly an interesting read and meaningful in way that
it provides some much needed validity to an under-studied aspect of communication. I appreciate
the removal of speculation from their research in contrast to previous forays into similar
research. It is my opinion that the conclusion that they came to was not entirely unprecedented or
unexpected, but valuable nonetheless. In responding to the reading it is important to note that it
only focused on written communication and if there are differences in communication they may
be found in the realm of non-verbal and verbal communication.
Issues caused by Perceptions
The Issues
The Robbins and Judge text repeatedly mentions the issues regarding distortion, noise,
and uncertainty in communication many of which arise out of diversity coming to a confluence
in the work place. Furthermore, the reality we perceive is directly influenced by our experiences
and environment that is to say that there is a certain amount of selective perception that occurs
in how we decode messages. This adds to the noise.
While perfection is unattainable, we can strive to at the very least to be effective in our
communication which can only lead to increased productivity and efficiency. The perception of
trust, accuracy, the desire for interaction, and receptiveness are all positively affected by
improving our effectiveness (Robbins and Judge, 2012).
While the study does not use the same terms in way of noise and distortion, a significant
portion of the introduction is devoted to perception and how it affects how we communicate. The
authors cite 6 different studies that had similarly sought to define differences between genders in

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communication, and in those 6 different studies they methodically showed how the testing was
contaminated by conjecture and the speculation by the researchers. In Womens Speech:
Separate but Unequal, by C. Kramer, which is cited by the authors, there is an expressed
apprehension concerning the extensive use of anecdotal reports and unsupported speculation
about womens communication rather than empirical research (Smeltzer and Werbel, 1986). It
would appear that much of the speculation and anecdotes seep into studies because of the mere
observance of gender so by removing the possibility of directly observing gender the research
can be stripped of any contaminants.
Why context and perception matter
When we are encoding or decoding messages we are sending and receiving a large
amount of data. This data is largely symbolic in nature. Combined with the plurality that often
exists in the medium of any given communication (ie. verbal and non-verbal cues being
transferred at the same time), there can be a lot to make sense of. Because any given person has
only a finite capacity for processing this data (Robbins and Judge, 2012) there are shortcuts taken
while translating lest we arrive at a point of information overload. These shortcuts mean that
we will project our realities onto decoded messages by using large blocks of our experiences to
fill in voids and add meaning to the symbols we receive. This means that our interests and
expectations also become attached to this data as well.
To better contend with the probability of skewing the intended meaning of the encoded
material we must be aware of the context of the sender as well as our own. In reference to
gender, there is a culture within a culture that often exists for separate genders. Boys are
socialized differently than girls, and this has a powerful influence on not only how they behave
but how they apply context to their communications with similar and opposing genders (Gender

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and Communication, 2012). The pearson text says that we need to break down these contextual
barriers and reduce misinterpretations. We do this by finding baseline similarities and empathy.
The Solution
At this point we understand that it is easy to skew observations through perceptions, what
other gauge do we have to understand the symbolic nature of communication? Thankfully we
have the scientific method, and out of that we know that we should simplify the sample down as
much as possible removing as many independent variables as we can. In communication, there
are too many variables associated with face-to-face interactions visual, verbal, contextual, and
evaluations. The study authors did this by limiting what was observable down to the message
alone, and making gender and any other perceivable context hidden from the evaluators. This
makes at least one significant part of communication measurable outside the influence of folklinguistics. Data in this case is truly empirical, which was a major part of what the authors sought
in their study.
Moving forward
Treat your interpretations as a working Hypothesis (Robbins and Judge, 2012). The
Smeltzer and Werbel conclude that even though the study shows a particular trend, it only
warrants further investigation and support. Similarly, in conversation once we have made a
connection and done a certain amount of empathizing, it will be prudent to not treat any part of
the interaction thus far as a matter of certainty. Instead continue to assess and reinterpret the
contextual clues given to be sure that any hypothesis regarding context is supported by the
feedback received.
Congruent with the Pearson text as well as the Gender and Communication video, the
Smeltzer and Werbel study indicates that we should be aware of the context that a message is

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either coming or going to but also that there is no naturally discernable reason to bias
communication based on gender. The effective manager in any diversity situation needs to
understand how to effectively listen, utilize feedback, and empathize. But because we are all
human, we must all also realize that we will always introduce distortion in way of how we apply
perceptions and experiences to our own realities. Motivation, performance, and satisfaction all
are affected by this (Robbins and Judge, 2012), which makes the approach to communicating
exceedingly important.
Upon analysis of the course text and the study findings, it would appear that
miscommunication between genders is less a byproduct of gender diversity, but societal and
cultural diversity. Due to gender norms being nurtured into youth and then retro-actively superimposed upon those we observe distortion appears in the hazy perception of what we decode.
Assuming that we encode meaning using symbols that are uniquely part of our experience, there
is no guarantee that they will correspond with a similar symbol upon reception. What this means
for managers, teammates, peers, leaders, and followers is that there needs to be conscious effort
to look past what is obvious, build a hypothesis of our own regarding how to decode meaning,
and seek feedback until we have an accurate idea of the context of a message. Gender norms
exist, but only because we put them there as a society and because of these norms and
assumptions we must continue to question the validity of their affect on communication.

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Gender and Communication: How Men and Women Communicate Differently. (2012,
September 6). Retrieved July 3, 2015, from
Robbins, S., & Judge, T. (2012). Essentials of organizational behavior (11th ed.). Upper Saddle
River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Smeltzer, L. R., & Werbel, J. D. (1986). Gender Differences in Managerial Communication: Fact
or Folk-linguistics?. Journal Of Business Communication, 23(2), 41-50.
Thorne, B., Henley, N., Thorne, B., & Henley, N. (1975). Differences and Dominance: An
Overview of Learning, Gender, and Society. In Language and Sex: Difference and
Dominance (pp. 5-42). Rawley, MA: Newbury House.