Young women are constantly told from many different angles, from their family members to their bosses, that they need to speak differently. Whether they pause too often, use fillers “like” or “um”, or use uptalk (where your sentences lilt up at the end of questions), women have been consistently criticized for their speech even though men do it at a comparable rate. While there is nothing intrinsically bad about these modes of speech, just exuding feminine cultural markers in speech as a woman can garner critique.
For example: George Bush used uptalk, but was never criticized for lacking conviction in his speech. Not only that, but women from Belfast in the UK usually have tonalities that fall at the end of their sentences, and it’s the men who usually have a rising speech pattern. Even there, women’s mode of speech is judged to be too emotional or expressive. This really highlights that it isn’t the type of speech that is being stereotyped, but the person speaking.
The big issue here is that this prejudice doesn’t just affect women like Mary Seitz-Brown, who received messages suggesting she change her tonality to have people take her more seriously after giving an interview on NPR. This is a woman who was invited to interview with the National Public Radio to discuss serious issues of violence against women; her opinions should be what makes listeners taker her seriously. When women of prestige can’t even get traction and respect from peers, how does phenomenon affect young girls?
In a study done by Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown that followed girls from around 9 to 16, at a certain point (usually around puberty), the girls in the study stopped communicating well and were not prone to expressing their opinions. These young girls have been socialized to weigh every possible outcome before speaking—whether it be critique, embarrassment, silence—and more often than not, they decide not to speak at all. This isn’t shocking when their anxious expectations are based off of very real reactions to women’s everyday speech. It isn’t surprising young women speak with little conviction after years of being told that just by way of their femininity, their opinions are not as valuable.
Navigating puberty and society’s opinions of not only children’s opinions but also women’s does quite a number on these young girls’ confidence. This is a call to action: do what you can to stop criticizing women for their tonality, how often they speak, or their fillers. There is no scientific evidence these speech patterns are more commonly employed by women, but there is scientific evidence that by shaming the women and girls around you, you are silencing the younger generation.
So let’s stop critiquing girls for how they talk. It’s just plain sexist.
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