For this last week of Women’s History Month, I took a deep dive into the reasons why women and men speak differently. It is a fact that the human voice is an instrument of power. It is also a fact that there are gendered ways of communicating which may hold women back from their highest potential.
For centuries, public speech making was considered the purview of men. The words of great male orators, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., have been preserved in the history books. But very few speeches by women were included in the storehouse of common knowledge. It is not that women of courage, conviction and oratory talent did not speak in public. It is just that their words were not documented. Speechwriter Dana Rubin set out to recover women’s overlooked oratory and spotlight 75 extraordinary speeches by American women. Her anthology, Speaking While Female aims to correct the historical record and inspire more women to raise their voices.
There is no doubt that as women, what we say and how we say it can change the world.
Here are some common communication habits that may be harmful to your credibility and perceived authority, and some solutions. Once you become aware of them, you will be better positioned to address them.
1. Vary your pitch
Female voices are naturally higher. Yet women often use but a fraction of the vocal range possible. Generally, high pitch is perceived as lacking authority, while low pitch is seen as commanding. Research studies indicate that for both men and women, those who had lowered their pitch ended up with a higher social rank and earned more money.
A voice coach friend told me recently that women’s voices have become deeper since the 1960’s when the women’s liberation movement was born. I found that fascinating. If you listen to the vocal tracks of movies and recordings from the 1930’s and 40’s, for example, you will notice higher pitched voices than you hear today.
All this points to the importance of knowing your full vocal range and putting it to use consciously when you speak.
2. Watch for upspeak and vocal fry
When you turn a statement into a question and your intonation rises on the last word or syllable—that is uptalk or upspeak. Linguists call this a ”high rising terminal,” which describes the speaking style accurately. It is most common in women’s voices, especially young women under 30.
You may not realize you are doing it until someone points it out. Most of my women clients have the habit of uptalking and it is one of the first things we work on because it is often perceived as a sign that you are less confident and trustworthy. In the worst of cases, uptalk may hold you back from a desired job or promotion.
Another vocal pattern that can hurt you is a creaky voice, also known as vocal fry or vocal growl. It happens when you lower your pitch until your voice starts to creak. You may associate it with celebrities such as the Kardashians, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and upper middle class white women.
Though it is good for you to use your full vocal register when you speak, vocal growl is not a speaking style you want to emulate.
3. Cut out filler words
Verbal fillers, also known as word whiskers, are perceived as signs of hesitation or lack of preparation. Today, like is criticized for its use as an unnecessary and distracting sound. Like takes the most blows because it is the most common filler among a collection of gems such as you know, I mean, ah and um, and is used more by young women than any other group of people. Its association with the “valley girl” stereotype adds to the negative image.
The use of fillers in the English language is at epidemic proportions. There are many techniques to rein them in or eradicate them, which I cover in my blogposts. Become hyper aware of those pesky sounds that can undermine your professional brand and reputation.
4. Avoid hedging and tagging
Whereas men tend to speak in commanding and definitive statements, women are more inclined to be tentative. In meetings you might hear a woman saying, “This may be a silly question, but” as a way of conditioning her question. This type of hedging includes “I am not an expert, but” and “Someone may have asked this already, but.” You get the idea.
Tagging a statement with a phrase that disqualifies what you are saying is a communication style that disempowers you. Tags are phrases tacked onto the end of a sentence, such as “I think this is a good idea, don’t you? And “I propose we take this action, but I could be wrong.”
Communication scholars say that tentative speech may be perceived as a lack of authority and self-confidence. The relative power between two speakers—like a boss and subordinate—may be a factor in how women communicate. Men tend to be more direct and forceful speakers while women are often more conciliatory and diplomatic when speaking up the ranks.
Observe your speech patterns and listen for markers of tentativeness when engaging with people you perceive to have more power. Foster a speak-up organizational culture by speaking up assertively.
5. Ask questions
A recent study in Psychological Science cited that women tend to feel more anxious about asking live questions at professional meetings, and are less likely than men to do so. In academic seminars, women are two and half times less likely to ask questions than men are. A similar study found that if a woman asked the first question, women in the audience were more likely to ask their own.
When I work with young female professionals, I train them on question-asking skills and coach them to never attend a meeting without making their voices heard. Ask a clarifying question, praise what someone else said, thank the speaker for their insights, but don’t leave the meeting without leaving your mark. Virtual and hybrid meetings hold heightened urgency to make your presence and contribution known to everyone attending.
6. Ward off interruptions
In general, men interrupt women 33% more often than they interrupt other men. Why? Behaviorists theorize that men are socialized from childhood to use speech as a device to assert their personalities and establish a pecking order. Women are socialized to foster interpersonal connections and build consensus.
Some techniques women can use to deal with unwanted interruptions include knowing your topic, standing your ground, and articulating clearly with good volume and vocal variety. Projecting charisma and confidence with strong body language, direct eye contact and energetic gestures also helps. You can also take a deep breath, pause, open your mouth, and do an intake breath to signal you have something important to say.
Now that you know some of the patterns that can hinder your ability to speak your brilliance, you can begin to break down the barriers to communicating with impact. Let’s work together to ensure that women’s voices are respected, valued, and celebrated everywhere.