Women On Facebook Use More Assertive & Compassionate Language Than Men, So Maybe Our Views Of "Bossy" Are Finally Starting To Shift

When it comes to gendered stereotypes perpetuated online, I think we can all agree that unfortunately, there are more than enough to go around. So it’s refreshing to hear that a recent study on language and gender on Facebook is dismantling the idea of women as being inherently more passive than their male counterparts. Recently published in the journal PLOS One, the research presents a statistical analysis of over 68,000 Facebook users, each of whom gave scientists permission to read millions of exchanges on their social networks across two different studies. The findings revealed that in their Facebook communications, women are actually more assertive than their male counterparts and favor language that’s warmer and less hostile, too — findings which might also reveal an important paradigm shift in how we perceive gender and language.

In the first of the two analyses conducted for the study, the research team looked at 52,000 messages from women and men aged 16 to 64 with an average age collectively of 26 and created an "emoticon-aware tokenizer" to pick up on less traditional forms of semantic expression and phrases — things like ":)”, "WTF", and non-standard punctuation forms like “!!!”.

The researchers — all scientists and psychologists from Stony Brook, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Pennsylvania — found some fascinating differences in the way men and women express themselves online. It appears that women like using intensive adverbs (“sooo” and “ridiculously”), choose words and phrases expressing positive emotions (such as “excited,” “happy,” “<3”, and “love”), and focus their Facebook discussions on social relationships about their “friends” and “family.”


In contrast, the most popular words from men denote a preference for talking about more impersonal topics and competitive activities; their language was centred around the phrases “government," “tax,” “football,” “season,” “win,” and “battle.” They also liked sharing their opinions on playing video games and shooting guns.

In the second analysis, scientists looked at the messages of 15,000 Facebook users within two dimensions: Affiliation and interpersonal warmth versus impersonality and coldness, and assertiveness and dominance versus indirectness and passivity. It’s here that women were found to be more warmer, more compassionate, and slightly more assertive than men online.It all makes for incredibly interesting reading — and it also brings up some important points about how we think about gender and language. Are the findings indicative of any societal advancements in gender equality? One of the study’s authors and a senior lecturer at the Center for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne in Australia Margaret L. Kern, thinks so, according to The New York Times; Kern believes increased use of social media may be helping to eradicate the stigma around women asserting their authority and that conversations on gender “have shifted over time.” And of course, this can only be a good thing.

So much of the descriptive language we attribute to men and women is gendered. There is, for example, no male-equivalent for the terms “slut” or “whore,” which entrenches the idea that men can be praised for acting as sexual beings, whereas women are shamed for the same behavior. And historically, the word “bossy” has been used to undermine females in leadership roles, too, with a comprehensive study of the comments on RateMyProfessor.com last year concluding that whilst male professors are often called “brilliant,” their female counterparts are labelled “bossy” by students. These semantic stereotypes haven't gone unnoticed by powerful women in the public eye such as Sheryl Sandberg, Beyonce, and Jennifer Garner, who all got on board with the “Ban Bossy” campaign last year to encourage more women to take up leadership roles.


But with these new Facebook findings, perhaps things are starting to change — or at least, we can see that when placed under a proverbial microscope, the societal roles and gendered stereotypes that we’re so used to hearing don’t actually carry as much weight as we have been brought up to believe. A lot women do know how to ask for what they want, but long-standing patriarchal ideals preach otherwise. Indeed, the study authors concluded that “social role theory, which holds that the disproportionate allocation of men and women into different social roles contributes to gender specific behavior.” So it seems what we really need is more funding for studies like these, to help undo semantic stereotypes — even if it is one word at a time.

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