Dominance Approach

Have you ever wondered why we say "he" instead of "they" when referring to a person of unknown gender? Or why calling a woman a "girl" can be seen as condescending? These are just a few examples of how the dominance approach to gender and language can shed light on the power dynamics at play in our everyday speech.  

Dominance Approach Dominance Approach

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Table of contents

    Gender and language use are closely intertwined, and the dominance approach is a useful framework for understanding how power and social hierarchies are reflected in linguistic patterns. The dominance approach to gender and language use examines how gendered language reinforces or challenges existing power structures, and how gender is constructed and expressed through language.

    This approach acknowledges that language is not neutral, and that linguistic patterns reflect broader social and cultural norms and values.

    Dominance approach: definition

    The dominance approach examines the relationship between communication and gender. In particular, the approach looks at how communication works (or doesn't work) between men and women and suggests that power relations can be seen in everyday conversation and nonverbal behaviour.

    For example, according to the dominance approach, men are more likely than women to:

    • Adopt an instrumental communication style.
    • Interrupt more.
    • Take up more personal space.

    An instrumental communication style is goal-oriented and sender-focused. This means the sender of the information wants to make their message clear, either by being assertive or persuasive.

    The dominance approach (or theory) has its origins in linguistic research that began in the early 20th century with Otto Jesperson, followed by other linguists like Robin Lakoff and Dale Spender, who contributed new research on the way men and women use language in the 1970s and 80s. Lakoff developed a theory called the dominance approach (on women's language).

    The dominance theory in linguistics

    The dominance theory was presented by Robin Lakoff in the 1970s and challenged the way women were perceived in communication.

    To better understand what Lakoff was challenging, we need to look first at the deficit approach.

    The origins of the dominance model

    The dominance approach has its origins in linguistic research that began in the early 20th century with Otto Jesperson. His theory has since been called 'the deficit approach' because it suggests that a lack of something, such as education, social freedom, or cognitive ability, affects how people use language.

    In 1922 Otto Jesperson published his book Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin. In the chapter entitled 'The Woman', Jesperson suggests there are differences in the way women communicate based on how they think. Although Jesperson observed that, linguistically, women are quicker to learn, listen, and answer than men, he also included the following observations:

    • Women tend to think before they speak

    • Women speak in unfinished sentences

    • Generally, a woman's vocabulary was smaller than a man's

    • Women use language more emotionally than men

    • Women prefer to move ‘in the central field of the language, avoiding everything that is out of the way or bizarre’ (Jesperson, 1922, chapter XIII), while men pick up new or technical terms more easily.

    • Women who are educated might avoid using slang or swearing, while an educated man might use both.

    Jesperson was the first modern linguist to examine how women use language and remained unchallenged until Robin Lakoff’s work in the 1970s.

    Dominance Approach - visualization of the Deficit Theory - StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Deficit Theory proposed that women think more before they speak than men do.

    The dominance approach: language and gender theories

    Let's take a look at some of the key theorists of the dominance approach.

    Robin Lakoff & the dominance approach

    In 1975, Lakoff published Language and Woman's Place. Countering Jesperson, Lakoff argues that girls were being brought up to use language that made them appear to be the weaker sex.

    According to Lakoff, women spoke less frequently than men, as women would tend to give shorter responses like “mmm” or “yes” to show that they are paying attention. Furthermore, Lakoff identified that, when women did speak, they would speak in a ‘woman’s register’ with various characteristics, including:

    • Hedging, e.g., using indirect language such as 'sort of', 'kind of', and 'it seems like'

    • Rising intonation in statements, e.g., 'this is really good?'

    • 'Empty' adjectives, e.g., adorable, divine, charming, lovely

    • Extra polite forms, e.g., indirect requests, euphemisms

    • Tag questions, e.g., 'nice weather, isn't it?'

    Since the publication of Language and Woman's Place, other linguists have produced studies that support and challenge Lakoff's arguments.

    For example, Lakoff's work has been criticised for its lack of research and data, in addition to its feminist bias; in other words, a prejudiced view favouring women that is unsupported by scientific investigation. On the other hand, Lakoff was paramount in raising the question of how women are treated linguistically and how this affects their status and behaviour.

    Here is an overview of the supporters and critics of the Dominance Approach. We will take a look at their arguments and their own contributions to the scope of language and gender studies below:

    Supporters of the Dominance Approach Critics of the Dominance Approach
    • Don Zimmerman and Candice West (1975)
    • Dale Spender (1980)
    • Geoffrey Beattie (1982)
    • Jane Pilkington (1992)

    Pamela Fishman (1975) supports the dominance theory but challenges theories made by Robin Lakoff, thus making her a critic of Lakoff's specific theory.

    Don Zimmerman and Candice West (1975)

    In 1975, the same year that Lakoff’s book came out, Don Zimmerman and Candace West carried out research in a college community analysing both same-sex and mixed-sex conversations. This was part of their research into gender as a routine part of everyday interaction.

    Their study was based on 31 conversations recorded by Zimmerman and West. The people recorded were Caucasian, middle-class, and under 35 years old.

    The study found that in same-sex conversations, interruptions were distributed fairly evenly among the speakers. In the mixed-sex conversations, however, men were responsible for 96% of the interruptions.

    Zimmerman and West concluded from their study that men dominate and manoeuvre conversation for their own purposes by interrupting more and talking longer in mixed-sex communications. This would seem to add support to Lakoff’s arguments.

    There has been further research into language and gender which challenges both Zimmerman and West's studies and the dominance model in the English Language.

    Dale Spender (1980)

    Dale Spender supported the Dominance Approach and further explored it in her book Man Made Language (1980).

    Spender's main arguments are:

    • That language determines the limits of our world.

    • That language is man-made (and therefore mainly under male control).

    Like Lakoff, Spender refers to a 'woman's language', and says that men dominate women in language. She suggests language is patriarchal and has been made by men for men in such a way as to ensure their continued dominance.

    Pamela Fishman (1978)

    Fishman challenges Lakoff's Dominance Approach assertion that asking questions reveals women's uncertainty and apprehension in communication. Instead, Fishman views questions as a feature of interactions: women ask questions because they have power, not because they feel insecure.

    Dominance Approach - Two cave people facing a woolly mammoth - StudySmarterFig. 2 - Fishman views quesitons as a feature of interaction.

    'Conversational shitwork' is her iconic expression for the work that women perform to keep a conversation going (1977). In her paper titled 'Interaction: The Work Women Do' (1978), Fishman states that women do more conversational work than men.

    In an experiment conducted in the 1970s, Fishman recorded conversations between three couples, five of whom were postgraduate students, and analysed the results.

    She observed that:

    • The men controlled the act of recording the conversations.

    • The men decided what should be edited out.

    • In at least two cases, the men attempted to control Fishman's interpretation of the recordings.

    • The women asked nearly three times as many questions as the men.

    • The women were more actively engaged in conversation than the men.

    There is an unequal distribution of work in communication.

    (Fishman, 1978)

    Fishman concluded that women work harder than men in communication because they have less certainty of success:

    The failure of the women's attempts at interaction is not due to anything inherent in their talk, but to the failure of the men to respond, to do interactional work. The success of the men's remarks is due to the women doing interactional work in response to attempts by the men . . . the women labor hardest in making interactions go.

    (Fishman, Interaction: The Work Women Do, 1978)

    Fishman claims that women have to do most or all of the work when interacting with men. She adds that this is not down to the way women talk, it is more because men make minimal effort to adequately respond.

    This minimal effort might be because women already carry out most of the work in communication with men in the first place. What do you think?

    Dominance Approach - a man and a woman on a set of scales - StudySmarterFig. 3 - According to Fishman, women carry most of the burden of conversations.

    Dominance approach: criticisms

    As with any theory, there have been many theorists who have criticised or challanged the dominance approach or work establishing the theory.

    Geoffrey Beattie (1982)

    Geoffrey Beattie challenged the dominance approach, specifically Zimmerman and West's theory in 1982. He conducted a study in which he taped over ten hours of debate between men and women. The results showed there were 557 interruptions (compared with 55 recorded by Zimmerman and West).

    Men and women interrupted with about equal frequency (men interrupted 34.1 times on average, while women interrupted 33.8 times on average). For Beattie, while men did interrupt more, it was by an insignificant margin.

    The difficulty with this is that you can just have one highly voluble male in the study that has a disproportionate effect on the total.

    (Geoffrey Beattie, 1982)

    Jane Pilkington (1992)

    Jane Pilkington’s research challenges Lakoff by suggesting that men were not so much dominant as competitive.

    Pilkington discovered that women in same-sex conversations were more collaborative and polite. She found that men, on the other hand, were a lot less collaborative, less complimentary, and less supportive than women in same-sex conversations.

    In 1998, Pilkington conducted one of the few comparative studies on female and male friendships and in-group conversation. Pilkington's study took place in New Zealand with two groups of women friends and two groups of male friends, and her findings were that both women and men gossip, but do so in different ways and for different purposes.

    Characteristics of female speechCharacteristics of male speech
    • Few and short pauses
    • Short turns
    • Minimal responses
    • Supporting questions
    • Repetitions
    • Extended topics
    • Disagreement countered by politeness
    • Silences
    • Longer pauses
    • Sudden changes of subject
    • Lack of response
    • Marked disagreement e.g., questioning, arguing, denying abusive criticism and ritual abuse framed as fun

    According to Pilkington, the two types seem to correspond to the established notion of cooperation (female) versus competition (male). She concluded that the competitive style is part of a male culture that is built on challenge, risk, and power.

    Pilkington also admitted that both male and female groups found gossip reassuring and considered it a sign of comradeship as a part of identity and community building.

    Now that we have looked at some of the Dominance theories around, which ones do you think apply today? Do you agree with any of them? Why/why not?

    The dominance approach in films

    The dominance approach has been challenged by other theories, such as Deborah Tannen's difference approach or the diversity approach. However, it is worth observing how we can use the dominance approach to analyse everyday life, including films and TV shows.

    Consider Disney movies: many of these are white male-dominated in terms of production, direction, cast and dialogue. In 2016, Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels confirmed this after they analysed over 2000 screenplays and produced data that showed how a male-oriented trend set in during the 1990s.1

    Their results showed that, in Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995), and The Princess and the Frog (2009), around 75% or more of the dialogue is male-spoken and that, in Aladdin (1992), 90% is male-spoken dialogue.

    Furthermore, in more recent princess films, the dialogue continues to be male-dominated.

    In Frozen (2013), for example, female-spoken dialogue barely reaches 45% of the total and, perhaps surprisingly, starkly contrasts with early Disney 'princess' films such as Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), where female characters have 50% to 70% percent of the dialogue.

    Do more modern films such as Frozen present women in a more submissive role or is the content of communication equally or more important than the quantity? What do you think? How do you think it reflects on society (or not)?

    Dominance Approach in films.StudySmarterFig. 4 - How often do men and women speak in movies?

    Hanna Anderson and Matt Daniels also confirmed ageist trends in the film industry, with actresses in their 20s and 30s having the most lines. This number, however, decreases as they reach their fifties. On the other hand, Male actors have less dialogue in their twenties, speaking the most lines once they reach their fifties.

    Try watching some of your favourite films and tv shows and see if you can identify who speaks more than the others - are they male or female?

    Various tests have been developed to analyze the portrayal of women in fiction and film; these include the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Test, and the Sphinx Test.

    The Bechdel Test began as an ironic comment by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and shifted to mainstream criticism in the 2010s, and has three rules to identify how women are depicted in a film or work of fiction:

    • The film must have at least two women in it.
    • The women must talk to each other.
    • The women must talk to each other about something other than a man.

    The Bechdel Test has been criticised for its limitations, as it has been argued that the test does not accurately measure quality or gender equality (e.g., films with prominent female leads may fail the test, whereas male-dominated ones pass). It did, however, lead to other tests being developed for evaluating gender roles in films.

    The Mako Mori Test, named after a female lead in del Toro's Pacific Rim (2013), focuses on whether the female role has its own storyline (or narrative arc) independently of the male lead's story.

    The Sphinx Test comes from the Sphinx theatre in London and looks at the following:

    • How female characters interact with other characters
    • How female characters engage with or react to situations or other characters
    • Whether the representation of female characters is stereotypical

    What do you think of the above tests? What kind of test would you create?

    Dominance Approach - Key Takeaways

    • Lakoff's dominance theory claims that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language.
    • Lakoff identified a 'women's register': a language girls are brought up to use that makes them appear as the weaker sex.
    • Pamela Fishman claims that women work harder than men in communication because they have less certainty of success
    • Dale Spender suggests language is patriarchal and has been made by men for men in such a way as to ensure their continued dominance.
    • The dominance approach has been challenged by other theories, such as Tannen's difference approach, or the diversity approach, yet can be seen in contemporary films and tv shows.


    1. H. Anderson and M. Daniels. 'Film Dialogue from 2,000 screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age.' The Pudding. 2016.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Dominance Approach

    What is the dominance model theory in the English Language?

    The dominance approach in the English Language suggests that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language. 

    What is the Deficit Approach?

    The Deficit Approach suggests there are differences in the way women communicate based on how they think.

    What is ‘women’s register’?

    Lakoff identified "women's register" as a language girls are brought up to use that makes them appear as the weaker sex.

    Who came up with the dominance approach?

    Otto Jesperson's linguistic research formed the basis for the Dominance Approach in the early 20th century, and this was followed by the work of other linguists such as Robin Lakoff and Dale Spender. 

    What is the difference between the dominance approach vs difference approach?

    The dominance approach views male language use as the default, 'superior' form and women's language as inferior or weak, whereas the difference approach is more interested in what the differences are between male and female language. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose the right answer(s) (more than one may be correct) In her experiment, Fishman discovered that :

    Choose the right answer (there may be more than one):Jane Pilkington found that men in same-sex conversation were:

    Choose the correct answer:  Spender’s main arguments are:


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