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25/04/2019 Communication Science news and articles

Of heroic men and moderate women

The impressions of a first-year Communication Science student regarding the missing discourse of gender in research.


Despite knowing that communication research heavily relies on generalizing small samples to whole populations, I am still smitten with surprise when reading through researchers’ conclusions sometimes. From letting experiment participants choose between either “male” or “female” when asked for their “gender” to classifying whole cultures as either “masculine” or “feminine”, there are quite a few gender-related issues that are not particularly well reflected in the field of communication. The so-far impressions of a first-year student.

First off, let me introduce you to Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist who was born in 1928, came up with a theory that analyzes cultures based on certain values. His research originated at IBM, where he was in charge of analyzing a world-wide survey of IBM employee’s values in the late sixties and early seventies.

Cultural dimensions
The results led him to assume that “different national societies handle differently: ways of coping with inequality, ways of coping with uncertainty, the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group, and the emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy” (Hofstede, 1984). He then developed a theory based on four dimensions (after further research six) on which cultural values can be assessed. For example, there is the “power distance index”, which identifies the extent of unequally distributed power in organizations. Another dimension named “indulgence versus restraint” basically indicates a culture’s general level of happiness. Sounds good!

What is not as good sounding though is the dimension of “masculinity versus femininity”, which is also part of Hofstede’s theory. While I find it generally questionable to assign attributes such as being masculine or feminine to cultures, Hofstede’s explanation makes it no better: “Masculinity stands for a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material success. Its opposite, Femininity, stands for a preference for relationships, modesty, caring for the weak, and the quality of life.” (Hofstede, 1984). Recap: Masculinity equals being heroic, femininity equals caring for the weak? I doubt it. But wait, that was back in 1984 and cannot be taken literal, you say? I’ve got you covered.

Not only were Hofstede’s results published more than three decades ago, he also stated that his definitions are allocated “social roles” and not the actual behavior of individuals. He further argued that “masculinity” and “femininity” are relative qualifications that are present in every society. Based on how much social differentiation there is between sexes he labeled cultures as minimum-social-differentiated (feminine) and maximum-social-differentiated (masculine). However, labeling rather male-dominated cultures “masculine” and more egalitarian cultures “feminine” in a renowned study is not really contributing to equality in any way, is it? And, as a side note, the attributes Hofstede uses to define social sex roles evolved in times we luckily have long overcome.

What about today?
What equally bothers me is today’s reception of the theory. Despite Hofstede’s books being available in 23 languages and his original study being cited more than a thousand times according to Google Scholar, there has been little criticism specifically addressing his dealing with gender-related stereotypes. Furthermore, studying the theory briefly without reflecting it easily leads to memorizing visible elements only — and what have we learned so far? Right, men are heroic and women care for the weak.

Taking Hofstede’s theory exemplarily, you can see where this is going. Even though its main objective is to better differentiate between cultures, the theory still conveys gender stereotypes. Such undeliberate allocations eventually lead to common sense. For example, I first heard about that study in an introductory lecture just a few weeks ago; Hofstede’s dimensions were used in order to explain the Dutch educational system. I and approximately 150 other students were taught that femininity means to “do what you like” whereas masculinity means to “be good at what you do”. Bullshit, I say. What I was really taught is to recognize the importance of wording, especially when using figurative language. Slight revision: Symbolic bullshit, I say.

To not end with unsubstantiated ranting though: Studying social sciences in a society with an undeniable lack of gender sensitivity, I comprehend researchers’ tendency of stereotyping based on existing allocations. However, instead of just presuming their accuracy, I would prefer researchers to critically question them. Being gender sensitive, not only in language, is important and beneficial. If we continue to use obsolete concepts to measure human behavior, the results will ultimately be biased by these concepts. After all, we don’t want cultures to be associated with characteristics such as “feminine” or “masculine”, do we? Instead, “egalitarian” would be a characteristic worth aiming for.

Further reading:
Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory
About Geert Hofstede

Cover: Charlotte Cooper

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