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Module 6: Gender Through a Cognitive Psychology Lens

 3rd edition as of August 2023

Module Overview

In this module, we will learn about the actual and perceived differences in cognitive development and functioning in males and females. First, we will look at language and how languages impact gender, as well as how gender impacts the way in which we utilize language and communicate. Next, we will learn about cognitive differences between males and females. Finally, we discuss how perceived differences may impact our performance.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Differentiate gendered versus nongender language.
  • Clarify how gender impacts communication and language patterns.
  • Outline the similarities and differences in cognitive development and abilities across gender.
  • Clarify real differences in abilities and perceived differences in abilities across gender.
  • Explain how perceived differences may impact stereotypes and how those stereotypes then impact performance.


6.1. Language


Section Learning Objectives

  • List differences in how males and females communicate and use language.
  • Contrast gender versus nongendered language and their impacts.


6.1.1. Sex and Gender Differences in Language

Language can impact many components of our lives. The way people speak to us, the words we choose, and the meaning attached to them highly influences our experience. Have you ever noticed you communicate differently than someone else, or that you modify your way of communicating based on the person you are interacting with? You probably answered yes, and that is common. Have you ever wondered if your communication changes depending on whether you are speaking with a male or a female, or how your own sex impacts the way you communicate?

Before diving in, let’s discuss affiliative and assertive speech. Affiliative speech is a speech style in which an individual’s speech includes high levels of attempts to relate and support the listener/other individual. Assertive speech focuses on ensuring one’s needs/points/ are communicated to the listener/other individual. For example, someone using affiliative speech may say, “I understand why you are frustrated that you cannot attend the event. I would be frustrated, too.” Whereas, someone using assertive speech may say something such as, “It is not logical for you to attend the event. I need you here to manage the calls.”

Women traditionally are stereotyped as more talkative, warmer, and more affiliative in their speech, and men are stereotyped to be less talkative and more assertive and direct in their speech (Carli, 2017; Leaper & Ayres, 2007). However, research shows that though girls talk more than boys during childhood (Carli, 2017; Leaper & Smith, 2004), men talk more than women in adulthood (Leaper & Ayres, 2007). In childhood, boys use more assertive speech, whereas girls engage in more affiliative speech, but again, these differences are small (Carli, 2017; Leaper & Smith, 2004).

The hypothesis that women use more affiliative speech, and men using more assertive speech, is supported by the research (Leaper & Ayres, 2007). In general, women tend to disclose more about themselves and their personal lives to others. They offer more support in conversations, and search for areas of “relatedness.” Women also tend to be less direct in their communication (Carli, 2017). In contrast, men tend to be more direct in communication, offer more suggestions and corrections, and interrupt more frequently. However, both women and men show more affiliative interactions when they are interacting with women than they do if they are interacting with men. More pleasant tones are used, more compliments are provided, and smiles offered, when interacting with women (Carli, 2017). So, it is not just our own gender that is correlated with communicatin style, but also the gender of those with whom we interact (Carli, 2017; Leaper & Ayers, 2007). For example, men demonstrate increased talking when they are with strangers or are in a group. Notably, when individuals are with people they don’t know, they are more likely to use more gender stereotypical language (Leaper & Ayers, 2007).  When individuals are discussing areas in which they feel they have expertise, or are in a position of having more power, they engage in more assertive communication, despite their sex or gender.

Although there are some sex differences in the way we communicate, men and women equally engage in providing cues of acknowledging that they are listening, giving directives, offering criticism, and presenting as agreeable. Moreover, when differences are noted between men and women, the differences are fairly small (Carli, 2017).

In nonverbal communication, the biggest differences between men and women appears to be the frequency with which one smiles (Carli, 2017). Women have been found to smile more often than men (LaFrance, Hecht, & Paluck, 2003). The frequency with which one touches another person, when the other person is the opposite gender, while communicating is the same between men and women (Hall & Veccia, 1990). However, women more frequently touch other  women while communicating than men touch other men.


6.1.2. Gender Influences on Language

Why is it that males and females tend to use language differently? One theory is explained by the social role theory.  Social role theory says that the reason there are differences in the behavior of males and females is due to roles that each have within society. Societal structure influences the behaviors of individuals. A large component of society and societal structure is work and labor. Labor division strongly dictates the behavior of men and women. The labor of women has been historically focused on domestic tasks, and labor of men has been on work outside of the home. Social role theorists would explain that biology has a place within this theory because the physical makeup, influenced by biology, helped to define the labor roles. According to social role theorists, men were bigger and stronger, physically, and were better suited for manual labor outside the home that required strength. Women bore children who were incapable of caring for themselves, biologically priming them for stationary, domestic tasks that required nurturing. However, as society has changed, the biological basis of the establishment of some of these roles has become less relevant; in societies in which this is the case, there is less division of roles (Helgeson, 2012).

So, what does that have to do with language? Because women’s roles have been focused on the home and nurturing, more communal and affiliative behaviors were fostered. Social role theory posits that the female role is primed to be agreeable, to engage in more smiling and nonverbal acknowledgement in an effort to build relationships. Adults are also more likely to command a girl to do something than a boy, fostering more agentic behavior in boys and communal behavior in girls (Whiting & Edwards, 1988). Agentic behavior in males may contribute to them using fewer attempts to foster relationships, and may partially explain their more assertive, direct communication style.


6.1.3. Gendered Language

He sat on the table – this is an example of language with gendered pronouns. There are three categories of language, as it relates to gender. There are gendered languages, natural gender languages, and genderless languages. Gendered languages are languages in which people, as well as objects, have a gender. These languages often assign a gender to non-living items. For example, in Spanish the word “paper” is masculine, and “table” is feminine. Examples of gendered languages are Spanish, Russian, German, and French, and some gendered languages have more than two genders. In gendered languages, gender is often “built into” the word which does not make adjusting the language for individuals that are transgender easy.

Natural gender languages are those in which humans and animals are gendered, but non-human items and objects are not. English is an example of a natural gender language. Other examples include Norwegian and Swedish. Natural gender languages allow for additional pronouns such as ze/zir/zie/hir for individuals that do not identify as female or male or prefer to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. Natural gender languages also allow for nonspecific pronouns such as “they” to avoid falsely gendering an individual as well. Unlike gendered languages, natural gender languages can accommodate using words that do not require a pronoun such as student, partner, and employee, and avoids gendering all together.

And finally, genderless languages are languages in which no nouns are categorized. Examples of these languages include Chinese, Estonian, and Finnish.

Is communication impacted by whether or not it is gendered? Differences have been noted, but not in the way one might assume. Research indicates that language that has grammatical gender within it can shape interactions and perceptions. These perceptions may lead to changes in our judgement, decisions, behaviors, and ideas which then may change how one is treated and one’s status. Given this, one might assume countries using genderless language have more equality, but this is not the case. Countries using fully gendered languages have been correlated with less equality between genders when controlling for economic factors and other confounding factors, such as religion. However, natural gender language countries show higher equality than genderless language countries. Research shows that gender neutral terms in genderless languages tend to be perceived with a male bias. Thus, genderless languages may lead to females missing opportunities to emphasize their role and visibility. Languages that allow for gender pronouns (natural gender languages) are hypothesized to promote more inclusion of women (Nissen, 2002; Braun, 2001). These languages also allow for gender-inclusive language, whereas fully gendered languages, in which nearly everything is gendered, are more difficult to incorporate neutral terms for promoting gender inclusiveness (Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, & Laakso, 2011).

6.2. Cognition


Section Learning Objectives

  • Explain how cognitive development differs between males and females.
  • Clarify differences in cognitive abilities between males and females.
  • Describe the perceived differences in cognitive abilities between genders.
  • Define stereotype threat and clarify how it relates to gender and performance/outcomes.


6.2.1. Sex Differences in Cognitive Development

Cognitive development involves the development of one’s intellectual ability to solve problems, reason, and learn. Intellectual ability is spread across several domains, including, but not limited to: memory, language, logic reasoning, math reasoning, processing speed, etc. There are various theories on cognitive development. Some hypothesize that cognitive development happens in a continuous, but gradual, way. Others propose it develops in stages. Some hypothesize that there is one single path, whereas others hypothesize that there are multiple paths. Additionally, nativists theorize that cognition is largely influenced by nature (i.e. genes, biology) whereas environmentalists hypothesize that cognition is influenced more by nurture, or the environment (i.e. parenting, schooling, religion) (Duffy, 2016).

So, do males and females develop similarly in their intellectual development? Although society perceives many differences, research shows that while there are some, there are vastly more similarities. Moreover, the differences are usually small and by adulthood, many of the them even out (Duffy, 2017).

Let’s talk about the actual sex differences. Research indicates that, in childhood and continuing into adulthood, the brain volume of males is about 10% larger than females after controlling for the larger size of males. This, however, has no impact on intelligence. When going further into detail, studies have shown that the third interstitial nuclei of the hypothalamus, responsible for sexual behavior, is larger and contains more cells in heterosexual males than females and homosexual males (Byne et al., 2001).

Another area of difference is with the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for several functions, the most prominent being emotion regulation and processing. In males, the amygdala grows during adolescence, but not in females. This increase in size persists, with research showing that even into adulthood, males have larger amygdala. Another area of structural difference is in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is largely responsible for memory. This area increases in females during adolescence but does not show the same growth in males during adolescence. The caudate nucleus (an area in the basal ganglia responsible for procedural and associative learning as well as inhibitory control) is also larger in females (Grose-Fifer & diFilipo, 2017).


6.2.2. Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities Spatial abilities. Males are shown to perform better at mental rotation. Mental rotation tasks are those in which an individual is shown variations of stimuli that are rotated and select the appropriate response. Males tend to outperform females in mental rotation tasks, especially if timed (e.g., limited time to respond; time pressures). Differences in spatial abilities can be seen as young as 3 months old (Quinn & Liben, 2008). Research has also shown that females that have had a higher exposure to androgens perform better on these spatial tasks than females that have not. While there appears to be a biological basis for this difference, environmental factors also contribute. For example, boy toys/interests tend to focus more on visual-spatial abilities compared to girl toys/interests, and children are often shepherded into different activities based on their gender (Grose-Fifer & diFilipo, 2017).

How males and females solve problems, particularly mental rotation tasks, may differ. It appears that women tend to activate the frontal cortex area more whereas males engage in a more automatic process. As such, females approach the tasks with a more analytical approach. Males and females use different areas of the brain even when they perform similarly on a task. Therefore, even when males and females have similar abilities, the way they solve problems may be different (Grose-Fifer & diFilipo, 2017). Verbal-based abilities. Females tend to outperform males in verbal fluency tasks. However, this difference is relatively small – smaller than the differences found in mental rotation tasks. There is no difference in vocabulary size between sexes; rather, it appears that girls have an increased ability to produce that vocabulary when a timed element is in play. Moreover, the advantage females have in verbal fluency early on begins to lessen around the age of six years old.  (Grose-Fifer & diFilipo, 2017).

Relatedly, males (children and adults) have poorer handwriting and struggle more to compose complex written language compared to females. Again, although males are not as quick and accurate in reading, their actual core reading capacity and abilities are equal to females (Berniger, Nielsen, Abbott, Wijsman, & Raskind, 2008). Math abilities. Mathematics abilities do not differ between males and females on average. Despite previous theories that have attempted to explain why males may have an advantage in math and science, research fails to support this hypothesis (Spelke, 2005). Although males tend to major in mathematics/sciences in college, and pursue more math-based careers, this is not due to a genuine cognitive advantage in this skillset. It has been proposed that there may be more sociological reasons, as you will soon find out (Spelke, 2005).


6.2.3. Stereotype Threat

What if you were told before you went into a job interview, you were not at all qualified and would never get the job because of your gender? Do you think this would impact your performance on the interview or how you filled out your application? This is the idea of a stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is when (1) a person is a member of the group being stereotyped, (2) in a situation in which the stereotype is relevant (a female taking a math test), and (3) the person is engaging in an activity that can be judged/evaluated (Betz, Ramsey, & Sekaquaptewa, 2014).

Claude Steele is one of the main researchers in stereotype threat. He began his work in this area focusing on stereotype threat for African American and minority students in the university setting. He noticed racial minorities and women underperformed academically, despite standardized testing that revealed these populations were capable of achieving equivalently to their white, male peers. He hypothesized that simply knowing about a stereotype (e.g., women aren’t as good at math, racial minorities are not high achieving, etc.) could hinder performance. In groundbreaking research, he supported his hypothesis (Steele & Aronson, 1995). In this study, Steel and Aronson (1995) conducted a series of mini studies in which they manipulated the presence of a stereotype threat, the context of testing, etc. For example, one of their mini studies consisted of having Black and White college students take a GRE. In one condition, the participants were told it would be diagnostic of their intellectual capacities whereas in another condition, participants were told the test was simply a problem-solving task that did not directly relate to intellectual ability. Results indicated that if Black participants were expecting a difficult, ability/diagnostic test, they tended to be more aware of stereotypes, have increased concerns about their ability, show reluctance to have their racial identity somehow linked to performance, and even began to make excuses for their performance. In general, the cumulation of findings from these studies indicated that African American participants’ performance on standardized testing was negatively impacted (i.e., performed lower) when reminders of negative stereotypes of their abilities were strong. Likewise, when those conditions were removed, their standardized performance improved. Thus, their study provided significant support for stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Steele’s research showed that it was not necessarily that African American and other minority groups had a lower, innate ability (biology), were less motivated, or that instructors were harsher toward them when grading. Rather, their knowledge about a stereotype regarding their ability and performance contributed to lower performance (Betz, Ramsey, & Sekaquaptewa, 2014). Spencer, Steele, and Quinn (1999) expanded this research from racial minorities to women, particularly as it relates to math performance. Similar to Steele and Aronson’s 1995 study, Spencer, Steele, and Quinn (1995) conducted several studies to manipulate factors and the presence of stereotype threat. One of the studies consisted of administering GRE math problems. In one condition, participants were told that gender differences had been found in the test whereas in the other condition, participants were told that there had not been a gender difference found in the test. Results of the study showed that when women experienced stereotype threat, their performance was hindered (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999).

This does not necessarily mean that someone has come to believe the stereotype that they are less capable at math or science than others. Simply being aware that others believe it is enough to create a stereotype threat outcome (Huguet & Regner, 2007; Wheeler & Petty, 2001). Stereotype threat in school. As you might have gathered from the description of Spencer, Steele, and Quinn’s 1999 study, girls frequently experience stereotype threats in school. At ages 7 to 8, awareness of gender stereotypes emerge. At age 5 to 7, females were unaware of gender stereotypes, but 8 to 9-year-old females were, whereas 5 to 7-year-old boys were aware of the stereotype regarding math abilities in girls (Galdi et al., 2014). Research has shown that females perform worse in math when under stereotype threat but perform equivalently to males when the threat is removed. Not only can stereotype threats reduce test performance, but they can also impact a girls’ ability to incorporate and receive helpful feedback when they are worried about providing confirmation of negative stereotypes. For example, if a girl is worried about behavior or performing in such a way so as not to confirm a negative stereotype, such as girls being bad at math, when a teacher gives advice or corrections, the girl may be more reactive and consequently unable to incorporate the feedback provided. When worried about confirming negative stereotypes, individuals may also retreat, avoiding class discussions at school (Betz, et al., 2014).

Gender stereotype threats may be more of an issue when a female’s identity is strongly rooted in being a female (versus their identity being strongly rooted in another area that is not negatively stereotyped). This is true for many stereotype threats, not just gender related threats. Essentially, if an individual sees their gender, or another negatively stereotyped feature, as a major part of their identity, and the individual is highly focused on doing well in an area (for example, a female wanting to be an engineer), they may experience increased negative impacts from gender stereotype threats. The effect is even stronger when an individual strongly identifies with multiple groups that experience stereotype threats, for example being black, and a woman Bouche & Rydell, 2017).

But why does the stereotype threat impact test performance? There are various theories, but one of the most commonly accepted is proposed by Toni Schmader. He theorized that when one is overly worried about a stereotype threat, the worry ties up valuable cognitive resources. This worrying impacts the capacity to draw on memory and attend to the task at hand. As such, they are unable to utilize their abilities to their fullest, impacting task performance. Research has shown that stereotype threats do not just impact test performance, but also impacts learning ability. This has been especially true for females when learning perceptual tasks (Boucher, Rydell, Van Loo, & Rydell, 2012; Rydell, Shiffrin, Boucher, Van Loo, Rydell, 2010).

However, some have argued against the validity of the idea of stereotype threats. One argument was that most of these studies were conducted in labs and could not be generalized to the natural world. Some researchers, such as Paul Sackett, believed effects in natural settings would be small, inspiring researchers to test this in natural setting studies, such as classrooms. Naturalistic research did not support Sackett’s hypothesis. Rather, it confirmed stereotype threats do negatively impact academic experiences, performance, and career goals. Moreover, these negative impacts are accumulating.

Other psychologists have argued that factors such as socialization, discrimination, and poverty stereotype threats do not explain everything. While these individuals are right, stereotype threats are found to be significant and important components. For example, when demographic surveys are moved from the beginning of an exam to the end of an exam, test performance improves. Specifically, researchers found that moving a demographic study to the end of an AP calculus exam led to an increase in the number of female students that achieved exam scores high enough to receive college credit. The results were significant, resulting in more than 47,000 females obtaining a passing score, per year (Stricker & Ward, 2004).

The above study is an example of what can be done to reduce the impacts of stereotype threats. Small logistical changes may have large impacts. Other strategies such as reframing tests as puzzles that need to be solved, or framing critiques as opportunities for one to grow and learn, may be helpful ways to reduce the impact of stereotype threats. Helping individuals learn to cope with stereotype threats and to use self-affirming statements may also be beneficial. Additionally, simply making individuals aware of stereotype threats may be beneficial. Finally, having increased same-sex role models and higher ratios of females represented in a class may be helpful, and this is true for stereotype threats in general. For example, same-race role models and representation of same-race individuals may reduce race-related stereotype threat impacts (Boucher & Rydell, 2017).

The number of cues in a class that remind an individual of a gender stereotype could be reduced and lead to positive impacts. For example, as mentioned above, if there are few female classmates or teachers, increasing their number can be helpful. Also, if a pattern is present in terms of who sits where or who is called upon more frequently, it may be helpful to modify that arrangement. Additionally, if only one gender’s accomplishments are discussed, or one gender’s interests are overly displayed in the classroom, (e.g., classroom decorations strongly geared to males), efforts to equalize this could be beneficial.


Module Recap

In this module, we learned about the actual and perceived differences in cognitive development and functioning in males and females. We gained knowledge about the differences in how men and women communicate. We also learned about how language impacts our understanding of gender and how our audience and status may impact how we communicate as well. We learned about differences in cognitive abilities between males and females. We discussed how there are very few differences in cognitive abilities and how perceived differences impact the development of stereotypes that then lead to stereotype threats. Finally, we outlined how impactful these threats can be and what might be done about them.

3rd edition


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