Gender in the Writing Center: Male and Female Consultant Techniques in OWLs

Piqued by a passing thought as to if our training in the writing center can overcome our impulses, I set out to study if gender played a role in how OWLs were answered at Texas A&M’s University Writing Center. In the field of linguistics, it has been argued that males are more apt to use directive speech and females more apt to use nondirectives; this is largely related to women’s propensity to more polite speech. But, here we have training that being directive is largely not our first instinct as tutors. How did this interact with gender impulses? 

I gathered 30 male and 30 female OWL responses submitted over a five-year period and constructed the following study to answer three research questions:

1.      Does gender affect the use of directives and nondirectives?
2.      Does gender affect the delivery technique of suggestions (politeness, evaluation, explanation, and options)?
3.      Do the strategies used in male and female speech also manifest in OWL responses, overriding writing center ideology despite similar consultant training?

I looked for non/directives and politeness in the OWLs, which were divided for study by the gender of the consultant. These are strategies that consultants use every day; for example, instead of saying “fix this,” a directive, you would say “how about adding more here,” a nondirective. For politeness, I examined both positive politeness—such as “This is a great passage!”—and negative politeness—such as “I know what you are getting at here, but…” Both strategies are often used to soften the sharpness of commands in OWLs where questions often do not work due to the one-sidedness of the conversation. 

My results were that the gender of the consultant could play a role in how OWLs are handled, despite training and experience. The socialization of gender impacts speech patterns, and the writing center is not a space immune to these realities. Male consultants tended to comment more frequently (more comments per word count of the submission), but female comments were lengthier, averaging 400 words per OWL with 27 words per comment, whereas men only commented 352 words on average with 23 words per comment. However, the study suggested that women were not offering more advice, just more words. Women offered direct requests or suggestions (as opposed to simple comments or observations) 42% of the time, and men offered them 40% of the time; nondirect requests were offered 31% of the time by men and 35% of the time by women. The extra words women were offering were revealed to be largely negative politeness techniques—talking around suggestions to soften them. This was consistent with female speech patterns in general.  

What is important to note here is that both the male and female consultants were getting the job done. They both offered relatively the same percentage of requests and mixed these with politeness strategies to promote rapport. More would have to be done here to see which approach was more effective for the client, but such studies have the tendencies to be reductive when gender is the only factor considered. The experience of the consultant, for example, could also impact technique. This, however, is a study for another time. The results of this study prove that we should be aware of the techniques we use and consider that our initial impulses may not be the best choice in every situation. There are times when negative politeness is really just talking around something instead of saying it, and its overuse can be just as grating as a consultant that delivers short orders in every comment. Awareness of a tendency is the first step toward deciding whether or not that tendency is an effective tool as a tutor or not.


  1. This is so interesting! Are you planning a longer article about this? I would be interested to know more about the actual speech patterns as well -- for instance, specifically what words the female consultants tended to use in these "negative politeness techniques." Thanks for this!

  2. It is amazing how students can recognize male and female speech patterns in essays, even though they don't know the name of the author. Glad to hear some research is being done as to why!

  3. This is a really neat way of demonstrating, the differences in men and women and how it affects the way the essay is written.... Amazing!

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  5. This is a really fascinating topic. I would be interested to know how statistically significant the differences are between the male consultants and the female consultants. For instance the difference between a direct-suggestion rate of 42% for women and 40% for men doesn't seem all that significant to me; nor does 35% vs. 31% for non-direct requests. Doing the math, it appears that female consultants averaged 14.8 comments per OWL, and male consultants averaged 15.3 comments per OWL, which, again, does not seem like an especially significant difference. I'd be really interested to know how male and female students respond to male and female consultants and how cultural expectations of acceptable male vs. acceptable female behavior play into that. Years ago when I was working as a newspaper copy editor, a male reporter friend asked me for feedback on his lead for a feature story he was writing. Knowing that we each respected the talents and competency of the other, I saw no need to sugarcoat my comments and told him matter-of-factly something like, "This first sentence is weak." He was taken aback and said, "Wow, could you be a little more blunt? I mean, pay no attention to my delicate ego!" And I have never been that blunt with a writer again. So I wonder if female consultants who did not invest more words in negative politeness would be perceived as unpleasantly blunt by student writers of either sex. Definitely worth studying!


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