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Socialized Male Speech Dominance: Why women find themselves thinking, “I just said that.”

When children are growing up, in any culture, their parents and other people in their lives teach them social norms and values by showing them how to behave and take part in social interactions. That process is called socialization. When someone teaches a child how to talk and express themselves, that’s called language socialization — and it isn’t just about learning new vocabulary.

Many cultures expect men and women to speak in different ways, according to expectations about their personalities or roles within society. (And this socialization also happens with other social categories, such as race or class.) In her article “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn,” Soraya Chemaly points out that men are socialized to dominate conversations, and this has no small effect on how women are heard (or not heard, really):

As adults, women’s speech is granted less authority and credibility. We aren’t thought of as able critics or as funny. Men speak more, more often, and longer than women in mixed groups (classrooms, boardrooms, legislative bodies, expert media commentary and, for obvious reasons religious institutions.) Indeed, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached. That’s why, as researchers summed up, “Having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice.”

I can certainly recall situations where a man repeated something I had said just moments before (and others clearly heard and responded to him more than to me). Where I was interrupted while trying to explain an idea. Where I felt the need to apologize for talking too much, even when I wasn’t. It can happen in nearly any context.

Sometimes I think I’m lucky to work in an environment where gender is somewhat obscured — that is, we communicate primarily via text, which highlights the words and ideas rather than the person saying them. But that idea, too, can be dangerous: our language socialization spills over into text, into how we phrase our ideas and perceive what others write. Stepping behind a keyboard doesn’t solve the problem.

The solution will come from socializing all young people in our society to speak confidently — and to listen carefully — no matter their gender, race, or class. And in the meantime, we can encourage those who might otherwise go unheard to speak up, and speak out against others who try to take away their voice.

Read more: 10 Words Every Girl Should Learn

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2 Comments

  1. There are multiple layers to this problem. The words we use (“I feel…” rather than “I believe…”), where we physically sit at the table, the depth/tone of our voices, all have an impact on our perceived leadership and credibility. A few years ago I coached a young woman (before a meeting) that SHE had to sit at the head of the table, because it was HER meeting. She had to take charge. We both knew the older men coming to meet with us would discount what we said. But it would be worse if she didn’t take the position of strength. That isn’t something she learned in law school. And vocal training isn’t something we learn, either. Unfortunately, people perceive those who are taller (uh… men) and those with a deeper voice (uh…) as having more authority.

    Thanks for bringing this up. Any resolution of this problem will come slowly.

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    • Oh, absolutely. There are myriad small ways we are socialized to interact with others, and changing that isn’t simple or straightforward. I’m particularly interested in the language side of things but that’s by no means the only factor.

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