Today’s post is by a guest author:
It’s happened again. A woman tried to show how bad people are at listening to women, and instead of listening to her, her words got twisted and used to attack women.
In her article, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting”, Alexandra Petri describes how “Woman in a Meeting” language is unique. In order to avoid being seen as aggressive (or bitchy), and to be heard and taken seriously, women frequently police their at-work language. If they don’t do this and instead speak assertively, women are often perceived as being aggressive, and angry women aren’t taken seriously. Petri shared the example of Jennifer Lawrence being accused of being angry and aggressive by one of her male employees when after she spoke to him assertively (i.e., not using “Woman in a Meeting” language). It turns out, men frequently mishear assertion as aggression when women speak.
Petri quipped that speech strategies adopted by professional women to avoid making men feel uncomfortable would transform famous quotes by men into watery, weak questions. She did this to emphasize how ridiculous it is that women are expected to speak this way. For example, “I have a dream today!” might become “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”
What started out as a critique on societal expectations of women’s speech, has not been received that way. Instead, Petri’s witty satire has been turned against women. I’ve seen her article posted across social media in the last few days, and the majority of the comments surround it can be paraphrased and summed up like this:
LOL. Listen to how unclear that hypothetical woman is! Why can’t she get her point across? She should learn the value of confident speech patterns!
No mention of how inappropriate it is that men can’t listen to assertive speech from a female mouth without overreacting. No mention of the challenges women face being heard and seen as leaders in the workplace, even if they might be better qualified than their confidence-spewing male colleagues. Instead, the comments about this article that I’ve seen all use it to critique how women speak. Suddenly conversations about women’s use of uptalk (when the intonation at the end of the sentence rises as though asking a question) and vocal fries (when words are drawn out in a low creaky voice) are all over the place. The tone is very much “How dare women talk like that? Don’t they know they sound stupid? Don’t they know they make women look stupid?” That Petri’s examples were all hypothetical women who spoke as they did to avoid inappropriately aggressive outbursts from men in the audience seems lost on the public responses I’ve seen. Petri’s point – that men have a problem listening to assertive speech and seem to prefer when women slip into passive parlance – has barely been mentioned.
But this is an important issue. Women’s voices are policed more heavily than men’s voices (see here, here, here, and here). We claim that we worry about women coming off as unconfident, yet we are eager to strip their confidence by critiquing not only their clothes, their weight, their use of makeup, their hair-do, but also now their very voice! It’s hypocritical to expect women to speak out while simultaneously judging them for their vocal habits. And it misses the fact that how women say things wouldn’t matter if as a society we were encouraged to listen.
In response to Petri’s article, I observed professional colleagues discussing it on Facebook. Tenured women called out younger women (in general) for speaking passively at conferences. Tenured men liked the post and explained in lengthy comments how speaking with confidence is definitely a gender neutral issue. When an untenured woman spoke up and made the same points I’ve made in this essay, she was mocked and told that “speech isn’t a gender issue” and “young women don’t realize how they are messing up their careers with their voices” (not exact quotes, but the gist of the lengthy comments the post received).
But speech is a gender issue. How we judge speech and who we judge is often determined by the gender of the speaker. This issue is complex, but if confidence is not necessarily a sign of competence, the opposite isn’t necessarily true either. Instead of judging women for how they speak, we need to work on our collective ability and willingness to listen to what women are saying.