These Viral Tweets Highlight a Common Problem For Women In the Workplace
On May 18, Huffington Post journalist and politics managing editor Amanda Terkel called a professor at Northwestern University to ask about a potential intern who listed the teacher as a reference in a job application. His response blew her away.
The professor allegedly told Terkel that undergraduate students are generally bad writers and that, based on Terkel's speaking voice, she seemed young and probably had "issues." Terkel mentioned that women generally have younger-sounding voices, which did little to help the professor's dismissive attitude.
After they hung up, Terkel tweeted about the incident and immediately sparked waves of support, from outraged tweets to sympathetic emails, including several from women who'd had similar experiences.
"It's given an opening for people to chit-chat about it and talk about how [a similar situation] happened to them," Terkel said to Mic in a phone interview.
"I don't want to say men never get this, but the stories I've heard ... were predominantly women."
Although Terkel said she would happily disclose the professor's name to university administrators, she's deliberately refrained from identifying him to avoid the possibility that outraged social media users might harass him.
"I also want to keep it on the larger point that making assumptions about female — or young — reporters is something that happens, even beyond this one person," Terkel said. And it isn't limited to young reporters either.
For instance, author and business expert Bernard Marr believes "uptalk," the habit of ending sentences with a higher pitch, can reduce an employee's chance of getting a promotion. While this speech pattern isn't inherently gendered, it's more widely criticized when women do it. Sometimes, it's even referred to as a "valley girl lift."
Not only are women criticized when their voices sound "too young" and "too high," they're also criticized when their voices sound "too low," as deeper female voices have a tendency to fry, meaning they have a low-pitched and creaky quality.
According to one linguistics study published in 2014, "young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hirable."
People also judge women by their words as well as the tone of their voice. Poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva made waves last year with her spoken word piece about white men who tell her to stop saying "like." Dozens of women flocked to the comment section to agree, saying they're sick of being dismissed for the way they talk. This tendency to conflate speech patterns with competence is inherently tied to issues of race and class, making it an even more pressing issue for women of color like Terkel and Lozada-Oliva.
In a Slate article, activist Marybeth Seitz-Brown summarized exactly how these widespread biases reveal more about listeners than the women they're judging: "It's not just gender. It's race, it's class, it's sexuality," she wrote. "Think Black English sounds uneducated? That's probably because you have some racist notions about black people ... Think that uptalk makes women sound less authoritative? Maybe that's because women are constantly robbed of agency and authority, and we view anything they do or say as less powerful."