Small-Group Interaction and Gender Research Paper

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When people interact together in groups that are small enough to allow person-to-person contact (2 to 20 people), regular patterns of behavior develop that organize their relations. The study of gender in this context examines how these patterns of behavior are affected by members’ social locations as men or women and the consequences this has for beliefs about gender differences and for gender inequality in society.

1. The Emergence Of The Field

The systematic, empirical study of small group interaction and gender (hereafter, gender and interaction) developed during the 1940s and 1950s out of the confluence of a general social scientific interest in small groups and structural-functionalist theorizing about the origin of differentiated gender roles for men and women. Parsons and Bales (1955) argued that small groups, like all social systems, must manage instrumental functions of adaptation and goal attainment while also attending to expressive functions of group integration and the well-being of members. Differentiated instrumental and expressive gender roles develop to solve this problem in the small group system of the family. Children internalize these functionally specialized roles as personality traits that shape their behavior in all groups.

Although eventually discredited on logical and empirical grounds, the functional account of gender roles stimulated broader empirical attention to gender and interaction, not only within the family but also in task-oriented groups such as committees and work groups. Evidence accumulated that gender’s effects on interaction are complex and quite context specific (see Aries 1996; Deaux and LaFrance 1998). This evidence is inconsistent with the view that gender is best understood as stable individual traits that affect men and women’s behavior in a consistent manner across situations.

These findings on interaction contributed to a gradual transformation of social scientific approaches to gender. From an earlier view of gender as a matter of individual personality and family relations, social science has increasingly approached gender as a broad system of social difference and inequality that is best studied as part of social stratification as well as individual development and family organization.

Considering gender in a broader context draws attention to how the interactional patterns it entails are both similar to and different from those that characterize other systems of difference and inequality such as those based on race, ethnicity, or wealth. While interaction occurs between the advantaged and the disadvantaged on each of these forms of social difference, the rate of interaction across the gender divide is distinctively high. Gender divides the population into social categories of nearly equal size; it cross-cuts kin and households and is central for reproduction. Each of these factors increases the frequency with which men and women interact and the intimacy of the terms on which they do so. Furthermore, research on social cognition has shown that people automatically sex categorize (i.e., label as male or female) any concrete person with whom they interact. As a consequence, gender is potentially at play in all interaction and interactional events are likely to be important for the maintenance or change of a society’s cultural beliefs and practices about gender. West and Zimmerman (1987) argue that for gender to persist as a social phenomenon, people must continually ‘do gender’ by presenting themselves in ways that allow others to relate to them as men or women as that is culturally defined by society.

Recognition of these distinctive aspects of gender has increased attention to the role that gendered patterns of interaction play in gender inequality. Interaction mediates the process by which people form social bonds, are socially evaluated by others, gain influence, and are directed towards or away from positions of power and valued social rewards. Interaction also provides the contexts in which people develop identities of competence and sociality. To the extent that gender moderates these interaction processes, it shapes the outcomes of men and women as well as shared beliefs about gender.

2. Current Theories

Four theoretical approaches predominate. Two, social role theory and expectation states theory, single out a society’s cultural beliefs about the nature and social value of men’s and women’s traits and competencies as primary factors that create gendered patterns of interaction in that society. The theories conceptualize these beliefs in slightly different terms (i.e., as gender stereotypes or gender status beliefs) but are in substantial agreement about their explanatory impact on interaction through the expectations for behavior that develop when these beliefs are evoked by the group situation. The remaining theories take somewhat different approaches.

2.1 Social Role Theory

Eagly’s (1987) social role theory argues that widely shared gender stereotypes develop from the gender division of labor that characterizes a society. In western societies, men’s greater participation in paid positions of higher power and status and the disproportionate assignment of nurturant roles to women have created stereotypes that associate agency with men and communion with women. In addition, the gendered division of labor gives men and women differentiated skills. When gender stereotypes are salient in a group because of a mixed sex membership or a task or context that is culturally associated with one gender, stereotypes shape behavior directly through the expectations members form for one another’s behavior. When group members enact social roles that are more tightly linked to the context than gender, such as manager and employee in the workplace, these more proximate roles control their behavior rather than gender stereotypes. Even in situations where gender stereotypes do not control behavior, however, men and women may still act slightly differently due to their gender differentiated skills.

Social role theory has a broad scope that applies to interaction in all contexts and addresses assertive, power related behaviors as well as supportive or feeling related behaviors (called socioemotional behaviors). The explanations offered by the theory are not highly specific or detailed, however. The theory predicts that women will generally act more communally and less instrumentally than men in the same context, that these differences will be greatest when gender is highly salient in the situation, and that gender differences will be weak or absent when people enact formal, institutional roles.

2.2 Expectations States Theory

Another major approach, Berger and co-worker’s expectation states theory, offers more detailed explanations within a narrower scope. The theory addresses the hierarchies of influence and esteem that develop among group members in goal-oriented contexts and makes predictions about when and how gender will shape these hierarchies due to the status value gender carries in society (see Ridgeway 1993; Wagner and Berger 1997). It does not address socioemotional behavior. Gender status beliefs are cultural beliefs that one gender (men) is more status worthy and generally more competent than the other (women) in addition to each having gender specific competencies. When gender status beliefs become salient due to the group’s mixed sex or gender associated context, they create implicit expectations in both men and women about the likely competence of goal oriented suggestions from a man compared to those from a similar woman. These often unconscious expectations shape men and women’s propensity to offer their ideas to the group, to stick with those ideas when others disagree, to positively evaluate the ideas of others, and to accept or resist influence from others, creating a behavioral influence hierarchy that usually advantages men over women in the group.

In mixed sex groups with a gender-neutral task, the theory predicts that men will participate more assertively and be more influential than women. If the group task or context is culturally linked to men, their influence advantage over women will be stronger. If the task or context is associated with women’s culturally expected competencies, however, the theory predicts that women will be somewhat more assertive and influential than men. There should be no gender differences in assertive influence behavior between men and women in same sex groups with a genderneutral task, since gender status beliefs should not be salient.

2.3 Structural Identity Theories

A set of symbolic interactionist theories, including Heise and Smith-Lovin’s affect control theory and Burke’s identity theory forms the structural identity approach (see Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin (1999) for a review). It, too, emphasizes shared cultural meanings about gender but focuses on the identity standards those beliefs create for individuals in groups. People learn cultural meanings about what it is to be masculine or feminine and these meanings become a personal gender identity standard that they seek to maintain through their actions. Identity standards act like control systems that shape behavior. If the context of interaction causes a person to seem more masculine or feminine than his or her gender identity standard, the person reacts with compensatory behaviors (e.g., warm behaviors to correct a too masculine impression). Consequently, different actions serve to express and maintain gender identities in different situational contexts.

Since people automatically sex categorize one another, this approach assumes that gender identity standards affect behavior in all interaction, although the extent of their impact varies with gender’s salience in the context. Gender is often a background identity that modifies other, more situationally prominent identities, such as woman judge. Unlike the other theories, the predictions of structural identity theories focus primarily on the behavioral reactions gender produces to events in small groups.

2.4 Two-Cultures Theory

Maltz and Borker’s (1982) two cultures theory, popularized by Tannen (1990), takes a different approach. It limits its scope to informal, friendly interaction. People learn rules for friendly conversation from peers in childhood, it argues. Since these peer groups tend to be sex-segregated and because children exaggerate gender differences in the process of learning gender roles, boys and girls groups develop separate cultures that are gender-typed. Girls learn to use language to form bonds of closeness and equality, to criticize in nonchallenging ways, and to accurately interpret the intentions of others. Boys learn to use speech to compete for attention and assert positions of dominance. In adult mixed sex groups, these rules can cause miscommunication because men and women have learned to attribute different meanings to the same behavior. Men and women’s efforts to accommodate each other in mixed-sex interaction, however, modifies their behavior slightly, reducing gender differences. In same sex interaction, gendered styles of interaction are reinforced. Thus, two cultures theory predicts greater gender differences in behavior between men and women in same-sex groups than in mixed sex groups. The theory has been criticized for ignoring status and power differences between men and women and oversimplifying childhood interaction patterns (see Aries 1996).

3. Research Findings

The body of systematic evidence about men and women’s behaviors in small group interaction is large and growing. Several methodological concerns must be kept in mind in order to interpret this evidence and infer general patterns.

3.1 Methodological Issues

Interaction in small groups is an inherently local phenomenon that is embedded within larger sociocultural structures and affected by many aspects of those structures besides gender. Three methodological problems result. First, care is required to ascertain that behavioral differences between men and women in a situation are indeed due to their gender and not to differences in their other roles, power, or statuses in the situation. Second, reasonably large samples of specific interactional behaviors are necessary to infer gendered patterns in their use. Third, attention must be paid to the specific cultural context within in which the group is interacting. At present, almost all systematic research has been based on small groups in the US composed predominately of white, middle class people. Since several theories emphasize the importance of cultural beliefs about gender in shaping interaction, researchers must be alert to subcultural and cross-cultural variations in these beliefs and appropriately condition their empirical generalizations about gendered patterns of interaction. The available studies that compare US populations such African–Americans whose gender beliefs are less polarized than the dominant beliefs find that gender differences in interaction are also less for these populations (Filardo 1996).

3.2 Empirical Patterns In North American Groups

Taking these methodological concerns into account, narrative and meta-analytic reviews of research suggest several provisional conclusions about gender and interaction in groups governed by the dominant culture of North American society. Aries (1996), Deaux and La France (1998), and Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin (1999 provide reviews of the research on which these conclusions are based.

Gender differences in behavior do not always occur in small groups and vary greatly by context. Behavioral expectations associated with the specific focus and institutional context of the small group (e.g., the workplace, a committee, a friendship group, a student group) generally are more powerful determinants of both men’s and women’s behavior than gender. When gender differences occur, they tend to be small or moderate in effect size, meaning that there is usually at least a 70 percent overlap in the distributions of men’s and women’s behavior.

When men and women are in formal, prescribed roles with the same power and status, there are few if any differences in their behavior. Research has shown that men and women in equivalent leadership or managerial roles interact similarly with subordinates of either sex. On the other hand, when women are gender atypical occupants of positions of power, they are sometimes perceived by others as less legitimate in those roles and elicit more negative evaluations when they behave in a highly directive, autocratic way than do equivalent men. These findings are in accord with the predictions of social role theory and expectations states theory.

Influence over others and assertive, goal-directed behavior such as participation rates, task suggestions, and assertive patterns of gestures and eye gaze are associated with power and leadership in small groups. In mixed sex groups with a gender-neutral task, men have moderately higher rates of assertive behaviors and influence than do women who are otherwise their peers. When the group task or context is culturally linked to men, this gender difference increases. When the task or context is one associated with women, however, women’s rates of assertive behaviors and influence are slightly higher than men’s. When performance information clearly demonstrates that women in a mixed sex group are as competent as the men, gender differences in assertiveness and influence disappear. In same sex groups, there are no differences between men’s and women’s rates of assertive behaviors or influence levels. These patterns closely match the predictions of expectations states theory, are consistent with social role theory, and inconsistent with two cultures theory. They suggest that gender status beliefs in society and the expectations for competence in the situation that they create are an important determinant of gender differences in power and assertiveness in groups, independent of men and women’s personalities or skills. They indicate as well that both men and women act assertively or deferentially depending on the situational context.

Men, like women, show higher rates of socioemotional behaviors when they are in subordinate rather than superordinate positions in groups. These are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that support the speech of others, express solidarity, and show active, attentive listenership. In mixed sex groups, women engage in slightly more socioemotional behavior than men. However, women engage in the highest rates of socioemotional behaviors, and men the lowest, in same sex groups. The latter findings are the only ones in partial accord with the two-cultures theory. That theory, however, does not account for the partial association of socioemotional behaviors with lower status positions.

Status factors alone, however, do not explain women’s increased socioemotional behaviors in female groups. Assertive, instrumental behaviors appear to reflect power, competence, and status equally for men and women and, thus, do not reliably mark gender identity for the actor. To the extent that people signal gender identity consistently across interaction contexts, they appear to do so primarily through socioemotional behaviors that are less associated with instrumental outcomes.

4. Conclusions

Both the gender division of labor and gender inequality in a society depend on its cultural beliefs about the nature and social value of gender differences in competencies and traits. Such taken for granted beliefs allow actors to be reliably categorized as men and women in all contexts and understood as more or less appropriate candidates for different roles and positions in society. For such cultural beliefs to persist, people’s everyday interactions must be organized to support them. The empirical evidence from North America suggests that unequal role and status relationships produce many differences in interactional behavior that are commonly attributed to gender. Network research suggests that most interactions between men and women actually occur within the structural context of unequal role or status relations (see Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1999). These points together may account for the fact that people perceive gender differences to be pervasive in interaction, while studies of actual interaction show few behavioral differences between men and women of equal status and power. Small group interaction is an arena in which the appearance of gender differences is continually constructed through power and status relations and identity marking in the socioemotional realm.

Theory and research on gender and interaction have focused on the way cultural beliefs about gender and structural roles shape interaction in ways that confirm the cultural beliefs. New approaches investigate the ways that interactional processes may perpetuate or undermine gender inequality in a society as that society undergoes economic change. If the cultural beliefs about gender that shape interaction change more slowly than economic arrangements, people interacting in gendered ways may rewrite gender inequality into newly emerging forms of socioeconomic organization in society. On the other hand, rapidly changing socioeconomic conditions may change the constraints on interaction between men and women in many contexts so that people’s experiences undermine consensual beliefs about gender and alter them over time.


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