Language Society and Power - Assignment 2

How do speakers ‘perform’ gender identities in their talk? Is there only one way of performing gender? Discuss the answers to these questions with reference to the literature on language and gender.

Plan of the essay: 1. Introduction: a. definition of gender identity b. thesis statement: ‘ is there only one way of performing gender?’ 2. Body: a. Gender can be performed in many ways: b. example of performing gender through voice utterances in men/women and the differences. b. Examples of performing gender using sources eg. Coates, Homes *in relation to social class. d. Language and Men and Women/ Language and History

c. 1st example: language and age - how is gender performed by different age groups? What are the differences between the following age groups: children, middle age people, elderly people?

*e. language class and gender: lower working class, middle class, comparison of performing gender between those classes 3. Conclusion: Gender may be performed in many ways as demonstrated in the examples above...


Gender identity can be defined as the individuals feelings about themselves concerning their

personality of being male or female; which is established during childhood and puberty and influenced by society. Smith (1993:4) identifies gender as ‘the term used to describe socially constructed categories based on sex’, he also states that ‘Most societies operate in terms of two genders, masculine and feminine’. Performing gender can be a very broad topic although worth analysing as various societies may attempt to answer the question ‘whether there is only one way of performing gender identity’. In this essay using the relevant sources including examples taken from Coate’s, Weatherall’s, Holmes’, Stokoe’s Journal of Sociolinguistics and Lester’s article; the existence of diverse ways of performing gender in speakers talk and various environments will be examined as well as the differences of performing gender between men and women. In addition the relationship between social class and gender variation will be discussed.

The differences in performing gender between men and women

Gender performance differs between men and women. The differences in ways of performing gender might be found in the ‘study of language in its social context’ or in other words ‘the study of linguistic variation’ (4:1993) Coates states this as sociolinguistics. The study of sociolinguistics examines both men and women speakers who are different from each other, taking into consideration their gender, age, social class or their speech. This is called social variation (4:1993). The study of social and linguistic variations have their structure which is the reason for the analysis of speech differences looking at the utterances of ‘real speakers’ in society. Those utterances of social variation and the ability to recognise the sex of the speaker through listening to their speech may be an example of performing gender. As Weatherall (49: 2002) states ‘there are numerous studies that have reported the ability of listeners to correctly identify the sex of speakers by using only verbal cues’. Identifying the sex through voices such as, high-pitched in women and a deeper voice in men may also prove the differences in

gender, although it is not dependent only on their differences in anatomy of their bodies but the frequency as well as the resonators which are responsible for the range of human voice pitch.

Ways of performing gender

One of the ways of performing gender which relates to the differences between males and females may be the fact that women use more standard forms of language than men. There is a pattern concerning women who according to Trudgill (1974) ‘regardless of other social characteristics such as class, age etc. tended to use more standard forms of language than men’ (101: 2003) The style of speaking was illustrated in the analysis of ‘social class, style and sex differentiation in Norwich’ where Trudgill showed the percentage of people in the UK who used non-standard forms of English in 1974. The research indicated that non-standard forms were used in the lower working social class especially among men who used less formal English more often than women. On the contrary, women represented the group who used the more standard form of English especially the middle-class. Therefore, it is women who use more formal language, even though men have always had more power over female. As Romaine (104: 2003) states: ‘Thus, women may be using linguistic means as a way to achieve status denied to them through other outlets. Since women have long been denied equality with men as far as educational and employment opportunities are concerned, these are not reliable indicators of a woman’s status or the status she aspires to. Although the marketplace establishes the value of men in economic terms, the only kind of capital a woman can accumulate is symbolic. She can be a ‘good’ housewife, a ‘good’ wife, and so on, with respect to the community’s norms and stereotypes for appropriate female behaviour’.

Ways of performing gender in various environments It is also important to acknowledge that gender may be performed differently in various environments including the workplace and various organizations within the community. As Lester states in his article ‘Gender is partially constructed and reinforced by organizational processes, including social interactions between workers, salary differences, and the ways in which work is segregated and divided by paid and unpaid labor’ (Acker, 1990). It may be assumed that particular professions are prescribed depending on the role of women and men in society and their gender performance as individuals as well as their own perception of their identity. However, this can have an impact on both females and males and create social status imbalance between them. As Lester states: ‘The imbalance between men and women in organizations has been found to significantly affect the gender identity of female workers, influence the structure and norms that informally create barriers to the advancement of women, impact the adoption and use of family leave policies, lead to fewer women seeking advancement, and create more salary inequality’ In addition, women tend to take up less paid jobs in a more welcoming environment such as, academic institutions where they perform their identities in a feminine way. Men on the other hand who characterize themselves with ‘heroic workers’ prefer to seek for more challenging work opportunities in order to prove their masculine and dominant nature within society. It suffices to say that, both men and women use symbols in order to perform gender in different environments. The example of such behaviour would be various dress code, appropriate language use as well as ‘expression of emotions’ which ‘reinforce representations of what is masculine and feminine, widening further the divisions of gender within the organization’ as stated in Lester’s article. It may also be assumed that women are supposed to act both feminine and masculine in order to be equal with men at work and at all levels including the

social status. Although, this would mean that the gender performance is presupposed which has been observed by Holmes and Meyerhoff in their sociolinguistic research as Stoke states in her Journal of Sociolinguistics: ‘There is no notion in such work that people are not performing ‘gender’: if the data do not look like standard femininity or masculinity the ‘finding’ will be that gender identity is not what we thought it was, or that it is multiple, fragmentary, or post-modern (Edwards and Stokoe in press; Stoke 2000, 2004). Thus the fundamental question of ‘how best to represent and even talk about gender and language’(p. 8) remains, in that the very process of writing about the ‘subtle’, ‘nuanced’, ‘complex’, etc. performances of masculinities and femininities can work to reproduce and maintain the gender order’ (Stoke 2004).

Performing gender according to culture and social class

Furthermore, gender may be performed in relation to culture and social class. The identity of man or woman may be demonstrated in various ways depending on culture they live in or a social group which they belong to. As Coates (1993:8) states: ‘according to social psychologists people derive their social identity from their membership of various social groups, but it has been pointed out that these groups only have meaning when they are compared with other groups’. The example of such case is illustrated by the same author mentioned above who describes both men and women in different social groups. As Weatherall (2002:4) states, ‘Lakoff (1973, 1975) strongly endorsed the idea that language reflected women’s secondary status in society’. Although women belong to the marked group and ‘are considered to be overtly inferior to men and thus have lower status’ ‘their awareness of themselves as a group seems to be growing’ (1993:8). Men on the other hand are dominant, belong to unmarked group and often

view themselves as the leaders of the groups who are more interested in the social class status than gender performance. According to Tajfel women have a choice of accepting their inferior status and living as individuals or attempting to join the superior group. However, there may also be a case of a group of women who do not accept their social status and may try to improve themselves by various strategies such as, assimilation or developing a positive image of their group. Moreover, women also attempt to become equal with men by specific language use. The examples of such strategy may include usage of a swear and taboo language, deeper voice, engaging themselves in typically male style conversations on politics or economy as well as the use of non-standard accent (1993:8). This strategy may be successful although it does not contribute to women’s development of their own identity in society. Another strategy used by women may be their own style of interaction in speech for instance, their ‘cooperative mode’ which is used as they communicate with other people in particular other women and support each other rather than using competitive strategies as men do in their conversations. As Coates (1993:11) states: ‘With re-evaluation has come the notion that the ability to talk cooperatively is a dimension which can be used for comparing speakers - and, for a change, a dimension where comparisons will tend to favour female speakers’. Therefore, the way women perform gender through their speech may be meaningful as it can make a difference in their own identity and what is more significant it can contribute to achieving their equality with men.

The relationship between social class and gender variation As demonstrated above women and men differ from each other as far as the gender performance is concerned. It suffices to say that there is a strong relationship between social class and gender variation. As Weatherall (2002:81) states, ‘Since around 1960’s an important

distinction has been drawn between sex as biological and gender as social; This distinction was, and continues to be, important in challenging arguments that use biology to rationalise and police people’s lives’. The examples of men’s and women’s characteristic traits such as, ‘men’s natural rationality’ and ‘women’s natural emotionality’ relate to their role in the society and their gender variation. Therefore, the roles of men and women may be equal and as the same professions can be done by both of them. Weatherall (2002:81) states that: ‘Women can be engineers, doctors and politicians; men can be nurses, secretaries and homemakers’ and also makes an important assumption that ‘It is not biology but social learning that limits what women and men think they can do’. Furthermore, it is significant to establish some of the linguistic patterns while talking about the relationship between social class and gender variation. One of the interesting findings which was presented by Holmes (2003: 100) concerns the feature called ‘social and stylistic continua’ which established the rule: ‘If a feature occurs more frequently in a workingclass speech, then it will occur more frequently in the informal speech of all speakers’. Another important finding indicated that women use non-standard form of English as mentioned before. Its rule established that, the lower one’s status the less formal the style of speaking and the use of non-standard English which proved to be more common between men. The use of nonstandard English is regarded as ‘a well known marker of social status over most of the Englishspeaking world, found in varieties of American English too’ as Holmes ( 2003: 101) states. Therefore the results of the findings indicated that non-standard form of English is mostly used by a working class men, whereas women who belong to middle-class are the group which ‘is closest to standard’.


In conclusion, this essay has presented the existence of more than one way of performing gender by both men and women as well as the differences between men and women while performing gender in their talk and a workplace. In addition, using the relevant examples taken from the literature, the relationship between social class and gender variation has been described. It has been demonstrated therefore that ‘gender is increasingly analysed in terms of the performance of identities’ as Stoke states in her Journal of Sociolinguistics and proved that depending on the way of performance both men and women create their own self-image within the community and decide on their own identity in their lives which determines their status and role in society.


Coates, J. (1993), 'Women, men and language - a sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language', London: Longman

Weatherall, A. (2002), ‘Gender, language and discourse’, London: Routledge

Homles, J. Meyerhoff, M. (2003) ‘The Handbook of Language and Gender’, Blackwell Publishing

Stokoe, E. H. (2005), 'Analysing gender and language'. Journal of Sociolinguistics, Volume 9: Issue 1, 118–133. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-6441.2005.00285.x

Lester, J. (2008) ‘Performing gender in the workplace: gender socialization, power, and identity among women faculty members.(Report)’, Community College Review http://

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