Stop policing women’s language

Graphic by Sarah Morassutti

Women are often criticized for the way they speak. Teenage girls are lambasted for their vocal fry and reliance on filler words such as “like” and “um,” while adult women are called shallow, catty, hysterical, and assigned many other negative traits for displaying emotion or speaking in a higher pitch. 

In the business world especially, women are routinely encouraged to alter their language to achieve professional success. This linguistic pressure appears in many forms — from women being encouraged to lower their voices and use fewer emotional terms when presenting, to women’s language and tone in written communication being scrutinized. There are many popular jokes about how many exclamation marks a woman should use in a work email — enough to sound friendly (or she risks being called a b****), but not so many that she comes across as ditzy or unintelligent.  

Women face many challenges in professional settings, both as a result of systems that have been designed without them in mind and as a result of explicit discrimination based on their gender identity and presentation. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the systemic challenges working women face were highlighted. In medical fields, personal protective equipment is often not designed to fit average women’s bodies, so women on the frontlines were left exposed. Women were also more likely than men to reduce their working hours or leave their jobs when stay-at-home orders resulted in childcare options like daycares, schools, and extracurricular programs being shut down. 

Even office temperatures can function as a barrier to women’s success. According to the New York Times, men often prefer cooler temperatures in their workplaces, which can improve their work performance, whereas women, who generate less body heat in the first place, tend to perform less well when temperatures decline. 

Yet another barrier women face is the correlation between pitch and perceived leadership ability. Research from Northwestern University suggests that both men and women are less likely to rate candidates with higher voices as competent, successful leaders. Furthermore, the perception of women as “shrill” can occur even when people are aware of issues with gender discrimination. 

In general, women in leadership roles face excessive criticism for their language choices and style of speech. As a result of this discrimination, few women are able to obtain leadership positions. According to data compiled by the Globe and Mail, only four per cent of executives at Canada’s largest publicly traded companies have female CEOs. 

Unfortunately, many of the proposed solutions to these issues do not actually challenge the systems of discrimination that harm women — they are band-aid fixes that expect women to alter themselves to be more like men. 

Of the few successful female political leaders, many have undergone extensive speech training, such as former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher, who altered her accent and made her voice pitch deeper than the average woman’s to support her political career. 

There are now a litany of training options and tech fixes that help women adjust their language in professional settings. For example, the “Just Not Sorry” Gmail plug-in that highlights terms like “just,” “I think” and “sorry” in emails.

However, these solutions do not challenge the misogynistic nature of many workplaces, nor do they help reduce the discrimination women face in and out of the workplace. The policing of women’s language, and the association of certain styles of speaking with intelligence, need to be left behind. 

The perception that men’s language is better-suited to professional and leadership settings is an outdated idea in a world where gender equality is the goal. Instead of changing how women behave, we should expand the range of what is considered professional and competent, especially when studies have shown that women’s tendencies toward co-operation, politeness and collaboration can lead to improved working conditions for everyone.