Reconstructing the sex dichotomy in language and gender research: Call centres and ‘women’s language’

Hultgren, Anna Kristina (2005). Reconstructing the sex dichotomy in language and gender research: Call centres and ‘women’s language’. In: Theoretcial and Methodological Approcahes to Gender and Language Study: British Association for Applied Linguistics and Cambridge University Press Seminar, 18-19 Nov 2005, Birmingham, UK.



The risk of overgeneralising the speech behaviour of men and women and of reinforcing gender stereotypes led to a postmodern turn in Language and Gender research away from an essentialist understanding of gender, whether the framework was one of dominance or difference. Where current trends assume that gender does not exist pre-discursively, but is produced and negotiated in discourse, I will argue that as long as gender is a binary reality to most people, research in Language and Gender needs to be anchored in those beliefs. I will argue that, while not supplanting approaches that capture the nuances of gender, there should be scope within Language and Gender research for treating gender as a pre-discursive variable and that there are scientific, political and moral reasons for doing so.
By way of illustration I have chosen the method of ‘Correlational Sociolinguistics’ to examine whether the use of selected interactional variables correlates with the demographic variable ‘sex’. The method will be employed to data consisting of 78 customer service transactions collected from a British call centre. Call centres are places, like most others, where beliefs about what men and women are ‘naturally’ good at flourish. Cameron (2000), for instance, has shown that the speech style required of call centre workers orients to what can be described as an ideal ‘women’s language’ and there is indication that those who recruit to the call centre industry believe that women are more suited for carrying out the job. Since call centre jobs are low in status and prestige and high in staff turnover and absenteeism, these beliefs, if left uninvestigated and possibly refuted, will feed into a gender order that subordinates women.

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