A few weeks ago my roommate came home from her sociology class fuming with anger. She explained that her professor had a medical expert talk to the class via speakerphone about an article she had written about women’s perceptions of breast cancer. After she had finished her talk and hung up, the professor remarked, “Well there you have it. I don’t know why she sounded like a 12-year-old girl, but that’s her problem, not mine.”
I was equally as angry as my roommate when I heard this story. I couldn’t believe the professor had undercut a woman who was clearly an expert in her field and took time out of her busy schedule to speak with the class. He wasn’t judging her on her knowledge or accomplishments but on something as irrelevant as her voice. Sadly enough, this isn’t an unusual occurrence.
There seems to be an exceptional amount of discussion about women’s voices recently. Terms like vocal fry, which is described as a tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice, and upspeak, which is when you increase the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence to make it sound like you’re asking a question, are used to describe the way in which women talk.
Women are often discouraged from using vocal fry and upspeak because it makes them seem hesitant, incompetent, and youthful. It is claimed that this way of speaking is annoying to older men who are often in charge of younger women, and thus has a negative impact on their professional lives. Women are instead encouraged to speak with authority, to use declarative sentences and avoid run-on sentences.
Why is all of this necessary? Why do women have to constantly be aware of how they sound and have to adjust their ways of speaking to align with men’s preferences? The obsession over women’s voices is just another example of how women are held to unfair, sexist standards. Instead of being judged on our capabilities, we are judged on peripheral characteristics like our voices.
Ann Friedman pointed out in her article on the subject for New York magazine that as critics focus intently on women’s voices, they ignore that men often speak similarly but receive no criticisms. She quotes Robin Lakoff, a feminist linguist, as saying, “With men, we listen for what they’re saying, their point, their assertions. Which is what all of us want others to do when we speak… With women, we tend to listen to how they’re talking, the words they use, what they emphasize, whether they smile.”
Additionally, let us consider what would happen if women did focus on changing their voices to sound more authoritative. They would more than likely be accused of too aggressive, too loud, or simply called a bitch. Women are often held to this double standard where they are expected to act more like men yet criticized for it when they do.
Last time I checked, drawing out your sentences or increasing your pitch at the end of a sentence has no indication of whether you are able to lead a company, hold political office, or write a novel. Yet women are constantly underestimated simply because of the way they talk. The medical expert who talked to my roommate’s class was a knowledgeable, reputable source, yet by focusing on how she sounded, the professor detracted from what she was actually saying. Women should be able to speak in whatever manner feels natural to them without being subjected to ridicule. It’s time to teach society to judge women based on their abilities, not on how they sound.
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