Lower Your Voice: Sexism Drowns Out Women In Public Speaking
“There should be courses in public speaking for women, because they’re handicapped, literally handicapped.”
Jack Marshall, professional ethicist and speech coach, dismisses those who blame sexism for Hillary Clinton’s lack of appeal on the stage.
“The art of oratory was developed for men and by men, and the idea of women public speaking is very recent,” he explained in an interview with The Politic. “If a female speaker cannot manage to overcome some of the built-in disadvantages of her gender, that’s her problem and her failing.”
Marshall’s criticisms are not uncommon. One of Clinton’s most significant struggles has been with public speaking and connecting with her audience. Commentary on her stage presence—or lack thereof—has provoked debate on how gender plays a role in our assessments of her public speaking skills.
From Youtube compilations of the “Clinton cackle” to derisive tweets like those of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (“@HillaryClinton was angry and defensive…no smile and uncomfortable”), coverage of Clinton’s speaking style ranges from satire to the close evaluation of her voice’s changes in pitch over time. Bob Woodward, lecturer in Yale’s English Department and associate editor at the Washington Post dissected her delivery style during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“She shouts,” he said, then suggested she “get off this screaming stuff.”
Clinton supporters attribute this criticism to the double-standards applied to female speakers—op-ed writers from The New York Times to Jezebel to the Huffington Post have pointed out how rarely male candidates are penalized in the public eye for raising their voices or for failing to smile for an audience.
While the challenges facing Clinton, the first female presidential nominee of a major party, capture the attention of both the media and its consumers, they are not unique to her situation. Women in traditionally male-dominated arenas, including everyday settings like the classroom, face similar situations.
Bianca Li ’19 is well aware of the hurdles facing female speakers. Li has been involved in competitive public speaking and debate since she joined Model United Nations in the 6th grade, and is currently a member of Yale’s top-ranked mock trial team.
“There are so many factors I need to consider when I’m trying to decide how to deliver a speech. As a man, you can be almost as aggressive as you want. But women walk a fine line when they choose to go on the offensive,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “Sometimes I’ll say the same thing [as I had in a prior competition], but if I decide to be more aggressive I’ll get a comment saying, ‘back down a little, you were too assertive.’”
Former competitive debater Ariel Chin, University of California Davis ‘17, also attested to the negative commentary elicited by assertive female speakers.
“My coaches always told me never to be too aggressive. If I were facing a male debater, I would consciously match, but not outdo, their aggression,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “And appearance matters. What women wear matters. We care more how women look; if a woman looks sloppy, it reflects poorly on her. If a man looks sloppy, we overlook it.”
For young women like Li and Chin, being a successful debate or mock trial team member requires paying close attention to how they present themselves, lest they lose credibility because of the tone of their voice or the degree to which they display emotion.
“In mock trial,” said Li, “if a girl’s voice is higher-pitched and she is a louder speaker, everyone will comment on it, saying things like, ‘that girl’s voice is so annoying.’”
Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and Scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), explained in an interview that female speakers are advised to avoid appearing too impassioned.
“Women are told to watch for their tone. Women’s tone is evaluated differently. Displaying emotion is also evaluated differently from men. If women get too emotional, that might play into tropes of women being too emotional, of being unstable,” she said.
The bias toward female speakers is not isolated to a single profession. A 2011 study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on gender and trial outcomes found that aggressive female attorneys were viewed far less favorably than aggressive male attorneys. The same study provided evidence that juries were more likely to respond positively to attorneys who abided by the norms stereotypical of their gender. For females, this meant behaving passively, while for males, this meant assuming a dominant role. Regardless of how they presented themselves, female attorneys were consistently received less positively.
A study led by Victoria Brescoll, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, revealed that among chief executives, male executives who spoke more were perceived to be 10 percent more competent than average by their peers, while female executives who took the floor more were rated as 14 percent less competent than average by both male and female peers. Similarly, powerful male senators tended to speak more often and for longer, while there was no such pattern among female senators.
Kae Reynolds, Senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield whose research focuses on leadership, communication, and gender, attributes the different responses to a phenomenon called gender congruence bias.
“Through our media and socialization, people are taught to have specific expectations for women and specific expectations for men,” Reynolds said in an interview with The Politic.
“Our culture has for so long presented us with leaders as men—with masculine qualities like dominance, lower vocal registers, and size—and we have internalized these leadership theories. We associate certain behaviors, personality characteristics, and physical traits with leaders that are stereotypically male. The qualities we expect of women—being caring, nurturing, accommodating—are at odds with those we associate with leadership. We expect women to be congruent with their gender, and when they are not, we respond negatively.” Reynolds said.
Dittmar provided a similar explanation for the male advantage on the campaign trail.
“We have expectations of what it looks like, what it sounds like, to be a candidate or an elected official. We also have expectations of what it’s like to be a man or a woman. For a man, the two expectations are more likely to align,” she said.
Thus women aspiring to leadership positions find themselves in a double-bind. From the Senate floor to the company boardroom, audiences tend to hold female speakers to a male model of leadership. Failure to exhibit qualities such as assertiveness, dominance, and even physical strength work against a woman’s ability to appeal to traditional conceptions of what it looks like to be a leader. However, should a woman have more naturally masculine traits, or intentionally adopt them, her lack of congruence with society’s basic expectations of her gender may decrease how likable an audience finds her.
According to Reynolds, the first step in creating a new, more inclusive model of leadership is challenging the current model. Rather than ignoring the existence of a problem, academic, political and social institutions ought to foster discussion on female underrepresentation in leadership. In politics, this means putting more women in office.
“Because of the Clinton candidacy, I have the sense that this is coming out more — and maybe it’s about time,” Reynolds said. “We must continue doing research, bringing statistics, and pushing these issues through government policy. For example, the U.K. government has pledged to eradicate the gender pay gap within a generation. The U.K. requires by law for all companies with at least 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap figures. This is change driven by research.”
The CAWP at Rutgers University, whose mission is to “promote greater knowledge…about women’s participation in politics and government and to enhance women’s leadership and influence in public life,” spearheads efforts in the U.S. to support women in politics.
One initiative backed by the CAWP, along with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, is the Presidential Gender Watch. The Presidential Gender Watch website provides visitors access to expert analysis of gender on the 2016 campaign trail, including live commentary, or “hot takes,” during presidential debates. Site visitors can also view infographics on women in American politics, polling data, and recommended readings.
“We wanted to infuse expert dialogue into the conversation about gender — to track, analyze and illuminate how gender plays a role in the 2016 election,” said Dittmar, who is one of the many expert analysts who contributes to The Presidential Gender Watch.
“In the 2008 election, when Clinton ran against Obama, we knew we wanted to pay close attention to what was happening,” she said. “There was a serious prospect of a woman nominee. We tracked the gender dynamics of that race internally, but we felt that the public dialogue around gender in the contest lacked depth. We’re trying to provide that with Presidential Gender Watch.”
Erin Souza-Rezendes is Communications Director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization studying the obstacles and opportunities for women running for office, with a particular focus on executive office. The Foundation has researched and studied women’s races for almost 20 years.
“We know that women running for office face a litmus test that men don’t have to pass: women must be both qualified and likable.” Souza-Rezendes said in an interview with The Politic. “Men don’t have to be liked to get elected. And men’s qualification is assumed in a way women’s is not. Men can say they’re qualified; women have to show it.”
In this manner organizations like the CAWP and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation provide much-needed support to aspiring female politicians. This support includes leadership programs for girls such as Teach a Girl to Lead, a joint project led by CAWP and the White House, mentorship programs for college-aged women, public speaking guidance, and funding for women’s political campaigns, including funds specifically to support women of color.
Though many challenges lie ahead, trailblazers like Dittmar are hopeful that with increased visibility, women in leadership will contribute to the creation of a new norm. Meanwhile, the conversation around gender and leadership is becoming increasingly mainstream.
“All politics are gendered. We have started a conversation about what that means, about the negative aspects of putting both men and women into gendered boxes,” said Dittmar.
Through the support of organizations geared toward developing effective female leadership models, future generations of men and women will have the opportunities to reshape these norms.
“We can provide to teachers, educators, and parents tools to ensure women’s public leadership will be visible in the next generation. Later in life, we hope these women will have less internal barriers. As for men, who often contribute to external barriers to female leadership, having them understand public leadership in a way that is not exclusively masculine is critical in changing those minds,” Dittmar said.
The barriers to female leadership are an uncomfortable fact with no easy answers. But as more women seek out leadership positions in their governments and communities, Americans will have to ask just what it is they want from a leader.