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Diversity Approach

Diversity, you say? Yes! In this day and age, we know the importance of diversity and embracing everyone’s differences, no matter who they are.

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Diversity Approach

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Diversity, you say? Yes! In this day and age, we know the importance of diversity and embracing everyone’s differences, no matter who they are.

The diversity approach (also known as the diversity model or theory) is an approach that is often mentioned in English Language when studying language and gender. We will take a look at the definition of the diversity approach before focusing on what it can tell us about the relationship between language and gender, the views of linguists who support this approach, and how the diversity approach can be included in the classroom.

Diversity approach definition

The diversity approach suggests that our biological sex does not necessarily make a difference to the language we use. Instead, our language is influenced by the roles we have in society and the way we interact socially with others. It also argues that there is a difference between sex and gender.

Diversity Approach, Gender signs, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The diversity approach argues that there is a difference between sex and gender.

Diversity approach - gender vs sex

Before we go any further, let's take a look at the differences between gender and sex.

Gender

Gender refers to the characteristics of men and women that are socially constructed. This includes the gender roles and norms that men and women are expected to adhere to in society and in their relationships with one another.

Gender is not a binary concept, meaning there are more than two ways to identify (not just male or female). Someone’s gender does not have to match up with their biological sex.

Think of gender as the way we choose to present ourselves to others and the gender norms we fulfil.

Sex

Sex refers to the biological characteristics that make up a male or a female. This includes reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones. The sex we are assigned at birth does not always determine the sex or gender we identify with.

Diversity approach in English language: theorists

We will now take a look at a couple of supporters of the diversity approach and explore their views.

It has been argued that this approach is more progressive than previous language and gender approaches, as it is newer and challenges research that has been viewed as sexist towards women. As you read through the following views, consider whether or not you think that the diversity approach is more appropriate than older approaches and why.

Diversity Approach: Deborah Cameron

Deborah Cameron's theory believes that difference is a myth. In an article titled What language barrier? (2007)1 she states that many language and gender theories are based on the myth that men and women communicate in ways that are fundamentally different from one another.

Cameron summarises the key points these past theories have in common:

  • Communication means more to women than men, so women speak more.

  • Women are better at communicating than men.

  • Men talk more about facts and getting things done, whereas women talk more about their feelings and people.

  • Men use language in a competitive way to gain status, whereas women use language to create a sense of unity and gain support from others.

  • Due to these differences, miscommunication often arises between the sexes as they misunderstand each other's intentions.

Cameron’s research focuses on the relationship between language and gender and how it is affected by society. She challenges the idea that men and women speak different languages and believes that any noticeable language differences in gender are due to the expectations placed on us by society - not biological factors.

Cameron coined the term verbal hygiene in her 20122 book of the same name to refer to the ways in which people regulate their language and communication to conform to social expectations and norms.

As gender and language are complex topics, it is also important to be aware that there will always be people who disagree with this approach, too. In her book, Cameron herself states that:

All the most theoretical debates within feminist linguistics have their roots in disagreements about gender, and the relationship of language to it.

(Gender and Discourse, 1997)3

Do you agree or disagree with Cameron’s views that difference is a myth?

Diversity Approach, women talking, StudySmarterFig. 2 - According to supporters of the diversity approach, women's' language is not inferior to that of men.

Diversity Approach: Judith Butler

In their book, Gender Trouble (1990)4, Butler suggested the idea of gender performativity. This refers to the notion that gender is something that can be performed, and someone’s gender identity is a result of recurrent behaviours that emulate gender roles and norms.

For example, someone who identifies as a ‘woman’ will tend to repeatedly perform the feminine gender roles set by society. It is worth mentioning that gender roles are dependent on your background and culture as the norms in different countries and communities may vary.

Judith Butler identifies as non-binary and prefers to use they/them pronouns.

Butler’s view aims to prove that there isn’t a difference between men's and women’s language. They believe that our gender is constructed through the language we choose to use and how we socially interact with other people, and that the language we use is not determined by biological sex.

This suggests that gender is not a binary concept, and the way we present ourselves in society is not as ‘black and white’ as previous generations have thought. Ultimately, it is up to an individual to choose the language they use and how they want to portray themselves to others.

Do you agree that gender is something that can be 'performed'?

Diversity Approach: Judith Baxter

Baxter challenged the idea that women lack power in conversations with men. She believed that women are as capable as men of being powerful. This relates to the idea of power relations, which refers to how people use language to communicate effectively and maintain dominance, as the language we use can influence the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Baxter's research focused on the relationship between language, gender and leadership. She applied the notion of power to women in the workplace, believing that men and women are equally as capable of taking empowered leadership roles.

This stood in contrast to theories such as the dominance approach and difference approach, which suggest that women's speech makes them incapable of good leadership as they are seen as weaker and less dominant than men.

Do you think someone can be a good leader regardless of their sex or gender?

Diversity Approach: William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins

Like Baxter, O'Barr and Atkins related the use of language to the idea of power relations. They opposed the deficit approach and, in particular, the works of Robin Lakoff who believed there were differences between men's and women's language use.

In their article titled '"Women's Language" or "Powerless Language"?' (1980)6, O'Barr and Atkins analysed the language used by people in a courtroom.

They found that the language Lakoff claimed was used more by women was actually used by both men and women who were either in a vulnerable position or had a lack of authority. They suggested that the features of speech considered to be weak or uncertain were dependent on the amount of power a person had in a conversation, not their gender.

Diversity Approach: Christine Howe

The work of Howe focuses not only on the relationship between language and gender but also on the diversity approach in the classroom. Howe suggests that socialisation begins around the ages of 3 and 4 (when children start school).

She argues that, although there are differences in the language used by different genders after socialisation, gender is not the only reason for this. She observes that women tend to be more active listeners, interject less and are less competitive, whereas men are more likely to respond as they want to gain power in a conversation.

In terms of the diversity approach in the classroom, Howe believes gender could affect the way children socialise with one another, but there are also other factors, such as:

  • the nature of a child.
  • relationships between different children (e.g., friends).
  • changes in the environment (e.g., competitive or cooperative environment).
  • social experience outside of the classroom.

Howe believes that, in order to encourage diversity in the classroom, teachers should teach children how to work well as a group and help them to develop communication skills so they can all socialise with one another effectively. This way, children will learn to be more cooperative in a conversation, as opposed to competitive.

Diversity Approach - Key takeaways

  • The diversity approach focuses on the idea that sex and gender are different, and that our sex does not affect the language we use. Sex refers to biological characteristics, whereas gender refers to socially constructed characteristics.

  • Cameron challenges the idea that men and women use different language and calls difference a myth.

  • Butler links gender to gender performativity, suggesting that we perform the gender we want to present to others through repeated behaviours that imitate certain gender roles/norms. Butler believes gender is constructed through language, not the other way around.

  • Baxter believes that women don't lack power in conversations with men; they are capable of being as powerful as men. O'Barr and Atkins believe that the weak/uncertain language typically associated with women is used by both men and women in vulnerable positions with a lack of power.

  • Howe believes there are differences in language used by different genders but that gender is not the only reason for these differences. Howe also believes that, although gender can affect socialisation in the classroom, other reasons for this include nature, relationships, environment, and social experience.


References

  1. D. Cameron, What Language Barrier?, 2007
  2. D. Cameron, Verbal Hygiene, 2012
  3. D. Cameron, Gender and Discourse, 1997
  4. J. Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990
  5. W. O'Barr and B. Atkins, Women's Language or Powerless Language?, 1980

Frequently Asked Questions about Diversity Approach

The diversity approach suggests that the sex we are assigned at birth does not necessarily make a difference in the language we use. It also argues that there is a difference between sex and gender.

Different theorists have contributed to and supported the diversity model. This includes the following people:


  • Deborah Cameron
  • Judith Butler
  • Judith Baxter
  • William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins
  • Christine Howe

An example of diversity is the idea that men and women do not speak differently, and one is not better than the other. This notion is supported by different theorists. For example, linguist Deborah Cameron believes that the difference in the way men and women talk is a myth. 

There are different approaches to diversity, depending on the theorists who support it. For example:


Deborah Cameron - challenges the idea that men and women use different language, calling difference a myth.


Judith Butler - links gender to gender performativity, suggesting that we perform gender through repeated behaviours that imitate gender roles/norms.


Judith Baxter - believes women don't lack power when talking to men; they are capable of being as powerful as men.

The diversity model argues that the sex we are assigned at birth does not necessarily make a difference in the language we use. It also argues that sex and gender are different things.

Deborah Cameron's theory challenges the idea that men and women use different language, calling difference a myth.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins believe that weak/uncertain language is used by ______ in vulnerable positions with a lack of power.

Which of these terms describes the way in which people choose to present themselves to the world?

Which theorist believed that men and women are equally capable of taking empowered leadership positions in society?

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