There have been a number of articles written — all presumably well-intentioned — that advise women on how to succeed in the workplace and advance in their careers. These pieces range from recommendations on what women should wear to work, to how to write the perfect email, to how to behave in interviews or team meetings. Such suggestions can be helpful, especially for women new to a certain industry or for women in male-dominated sectors. However, it is also crucial to consider when such advice might actually contribute to the underlying attitudes of sexism they seek to address.
One such area of career “advice” that has drawn attention and some controversy is the ad nauseam criticism of women’s voices. Many articles make it seem as though there are problems inherent to women’s speech patterns, with no real way to win. Women in the workplace are either read as too timid and feminine, or unlikeable and aggressive.
Women in politics are certainly familiar with obsessive scrutiny in this regard. You probably recall presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was often derided for "yelling” or sounding “shrill.” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was recently described as “hysterical,” and has frequently been interrupted and chastised by her colleagues for speaking “too much.”
These descriptors aren’t just for politicians, though. Radio listeners often complain of female hosts’ “vocal fry” — described as a creaky, gravelly voice or low, vibrating guttural sounds. A 2014 study found that young women who demonstrated vocal fry were perceived negatively and seen as less competent, educated, trustworthy and hireable.
At the other end of the spectrum, women have also been maligned for using “up speak” or the “Valley-Girl lift” — ending statements with a slightly raised pitch and intonation, as if asking a question. According to a recent survey of bosses and employers, the majority believed that up speak was an indicator of insecurity and emotional weakness, found it “annoying,” and admitted that it had the potential to damage a person’s professional credibility.
These critiques and tips present a tricky line to navigate. We want to present ourselves in the best possible light to our coworkers, boss, and clients, and that can mean being more cognizant of the way we speak. In the same way that we would modify our tone between a happy hour with close friends and a formal interview, it is also appropriate to “code switch” to some degree when we enter the workplace or a professional environment.
There is also something to be said for the ways women have been conditioned to speak from a very early age, and for the value of advice aimed at mitigating these learned patterns. Women tend to apologize more often, use unnecessary permission words like “just” (as in, “just checking” or “just following up”), overuse the word “like,” or use qualifiers that undermine our own position (e.g. “I’m not an expert in this, but…”). We shouldn’t feel the need to apologize when an apology isn’t necessary. We should aim to be more confident and authoritative in our abilities.
However, we don’t want to fall into a pattern of endlessly policing women’s speech. Instead, we should aim to be more aware of how sexism and internalized biases might shape our perceptions. As linguist and activist Marybeth Seitz-Brown wrote in Slate, “Think that uptalk makes women sound less authoritative? Maybe that’s because women are constantly robbed of agency and authority, and we view anything they do or say as less powerful…. The problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”
After all, it is worth noting that the same preoccupation with speech doesn’t occur for men. You would be hard-pressed to find a think piece about why men should speak with more inflection or stop demonstrating some other verbal tic. And yet, evidence shows that men use vocal fry and up speak too, though without the professional consequences.
Women also encounter a double bind when it comes to their speech patterns. “When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” commented linguist Deborah Tannen. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.”
There is a difference between making a thoughtful effort to avoid being needlessly deferential in the workplace and attempting to speak with a less “annoying” tone. There is a difference between modifying your language to better exude professionalism and being advised to eliminate feminine-coded traits and behaviors.
This is a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. Instead of shifting the burden onto individual women to alter their voices according to arbitrary standards, it is worth interrogating why certain gendered speech patterns are perceived so negatively in the first place and challenging these underlying biases.
Be careful about sending the message that the only way for women to be taken seriously is if they talk or act “like a man.” Instead, consider how to address these cultural barriers to women’s success.
The next time a female colleague’s comments are judged by their presentation, rather than their content, bring attention to that fact. Use it as a starting point to discuss the different expectations of men and women in your workplace. Let’s stop talking about the way women talk, and start focusing on what they’re saying.