August 27, 2007

Ashley Rieder ’08 Dissects Gender Communication Styles

Psychology and English double major explores gender communication in the workforce with Susan Basow, Dana Professor of Psychology

This summer, Ashley Rieder ’08 (Clark, N.J.) performed research that afforded her the opportunity to combine components of both of her majors, English and psychology. Under the direction of Susan Basow, Dana Professor of Psychology, Rieder worked on a chapter in the second of a three-volume set titled “The Psychology Women at Work: Challenges and Solutions for our Female Workforce,” to be published by Praeger.

They collaborated through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, where students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

The chapter Rieder and Basow worked on was “Speaking in a ‘Man’s World:’ Gendered Communication Styles in the Workplace.” Rieder was responsible for finding research articles, books, and ethnographic reports on the general topic, then summarizing each one, noting methodology, strengths, limitations, and implications for the workplace. She then summarized the main findings, looking for patterns and inconsistencies. Finally, she commented upon two drafts of the final chapter and compiled the bibliography.

“Overall, it appears that men and women do not differ in their communication style because of their gender,” Rieder says. “But instead, because of situational and traditional differences such as the stereotyped roles assigned to men and women, and the greater numbers of men versus women in higher-level positions.”

According to Basow, women tend to use slightly more affiliative speech (making connections with other people) than do men, who tend to use slightly more assertive speech (putting one’s own self forward).

“Men also tend to talk more, especially in groups with at least one woman,” Basow explains. “Still, despite small actual differences, people expect large differences and often perceive similar communication styles in different ways, depending upon whether the speaker is a man or a woman. For example, where a man might be perceived as strong and firm, a woman might be perceived as overly aggressive. Men, in particular, seem to have a difficult time with strong assertive women, responding better to those who speak more tentatively.”

The bottom line?

“Women in the workplace need to manifest both assertive and affiliative behaviors in order to be accepted and perceived positively,” says Basow.

According to Rieder, the major benefit of examining the differences and consequences of communication style is that it may help to ensure an understanding of one another, as well as to eradicate some of the common stereotypes that men and women are faced with everyday. Rieder expects to carry forward the knowledge and insight she gained during this project into her professional career.

“What is interesting for me is the importance that this topic will have for me when I enter the workplace in the not too distant future,” Rieder explains. “It will be very useful for me to know how my communication style may help or hurt me as a result of my gender, as well as allow me to keep an open mind when communicating with others. This project seemed perfect for me, as a double major in psychology and English, who is interested in both psychological phenomenon as well as writing. This project also affords me the opportunity to become more comfortable with reading and interpreting empirical research reports in the field, which will be helpful in the coming years when I hope to enter graduate school in psychology.”

Rieder says she “loves” the emphasis on psychology as a science at Lafayette, and feels as though her exposure to the lab and to research is preparing her well for graduate school. In addition, Rieder appreciates the opportunity Lafayette provides for advanced learning opportunities, such as the EXCEL program.

”Lafayette is a great place for this type of project,” she says. “One of the things I love most about it is that when another faculty member hears about our project, he or she is always curious to know about our findings. There is a great support system here, as well as a clear passion from students and faculty to learn.”

Working with Professor Basow, according to Rieder, has been very fulfilling. She says Basow makes her expectations clear and is always willing to answer questions and offer guidance.

“She was also just as excited as I was that I would have the opportunity to work on a project that would allow me to combine both my passion for psychology and for writing,” Rieder adds.

Basow says the EXCEL program serves both students and faculty well. Faculty members, she explains, receive the benefits of a talented research assistant eager to learn and be of help. Meanwhile, students receive one-on-one training in research skills, an experience, Basow says, is unusual for undergraduates at other institutions.

This EXCEL project illustrates how the program benefits both professors and students, according to Basow.

“Ashley is very bright and extremely responsible and conscientious,” she says. “She is also an excellent writer. These were exactly the qualities I needed on this research project. I think the project helped develop Ashley’s critical thinking skills further, which will prepare her well for conducting her own research project for honors in psychology. I very much appreciated Ashley’s willingness to respond to my directives, and especially her ability to work autonomously, since I have been in California and Ashley has been in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”

In addition to her EXCEL research and her other academic studies, Rieder is a member of the Psi Chi National Honor Society of Psychology and the chapter president of the Pi Beta Phi sorority.

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