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March 10, 1997

Talking gender: Psychologist Campbell Leaper studies language and gender

By Jennifer McNulty

Developmental psychologist Campbell Leaper offers a first step for those who are concerned about gender inequality: Encourage girls and boys to play together.

"If girls and boys don't play together as children, how can we expect men and women to get along in the workplace or in love relationships?" asks Leaper.

Leaper studies the role of language in the construction of gender, and his subjects range from toddlers to college students. Yes, he says, mothers and fathers do talk differently to their children. And yes, women gossip more than men, but they are also better listeners. The biggest problem, he asserts, is that boys and girls don't share enough activities.

"If we minimize gender segregation, boys and girls will develop similar styles," says Leaper, who frequently fields questions from anxious parents who worry that their daughter is too passive or their son is too bossy.

"Traditionally, girls get a lot of opportunity to practice intimacy-related skills, and boys get a lot of practice with work-related skills," says Leaper. "It's important to give kids opportunities to practice different skills. It's not an either/or situation."

Leaper has found that different activities elicit different styles of interaction. For example, playing with toy cars tends to elicit what psychologists call "task-oriented" talk as participants discuss laying out track and how to "get the job done." Playing with toy dishes, however, involves storytelling and generates more "collaborative" communication, says Leaper.

To the extent that boys and girls choose different activities as children, they develop different communication styles. "By the time we're adults, everyone is reaching for the latest pop psychology book about why women and men can't talk to each other," Leaper says with a wry smile.

Leaper recently completed a meta-analysis--a survey of existing studies that attempts to establish overall trends--of research on gender and family relationships, specifically how parents talk to their children.

"Any number of studies point out that how parents communicate with kids is important," says Leaper, who was curious to compare how mothers and fathers talk with their children, and how mothers talk with sons compared to daughters. There aren't enough studies of how fathers speak with their children to perform a meta-analysis, Leaper notes.

Overall, it appears that mothers talk more than fathers, and that moms are more engaged in regulating or guiding activities than dads. Fathers appear to be more concerned with getting down to business, says Leaper. In what Leaper calls "the process being recycled," mothers also talk more with their daughters than with their sons during the infant and toddler years.

In a surprising finding, Leaper says that mothers use more controlling types of communication with their daughters than their sons. "We expected to find that mothers are more controlling with their sons, but in fact it's the opposite. It may be that they're giving their sons more leeway, granting them more autonomy, which is consistent with traditional gender roles," says Leaper.

Parents can help break the patterns by engaging in nontraditional play because parental communication style varies with the activity, says Leaper. "A lot of how boys and girls are treated differently depends on what the parent does with the child," he says.

At the other end of child development, differences are apparent in the ways in which men and women communicate. Most significantly, Leaper has found, there is a lot more "active understanding" in conversations between two women friends than in conversations between two men friends or between male and female friends. Responses like "uh huh" and "I know what you mean" indicate understanding and support, says Leaper, whose findings were featured in a report by National Public Radio. "Does this difference have implications for communication in romantic relationships? Probably."

Such differences both reflect and contribute to power asymmetries in male-female relationships, says Leaper, who is eager to help balance the scale.

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