The Great Silence: How Women Are Excluded Because of Their Speech

By Rhiannon Winner on August 19, 2015

Women talk too much. Women use “like” and “just” and other qualifiers too often. Women apologize too much. Women’s voices are too high or too low. Women just can’t seem to figure out how to talk, apparently.

Wait, people still say things like that in 2015? 

You can consider yourself lucky if you’ve made it your whole life without hearing anyone joke about how much women talk. It crops up everywhere, from career advice on popular TV shows recommending women don’t talk much in the workplace (RE: Fox News), to jokes that often cause a woman to withdraw from the conversation. Why are women shamed for talking? Is it because we legitimately talk nonstop, to the point that we exclude others from the conversation? Research suggests that not only do women not talk as often as men seem to think we do, but men talk far more. In everyday conversation, in official settings, and even in grade school discussions, men talked significantly more than women.

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Women are even criticized for the mere sound of their voices. Talk radio and podcasts that feature women receive numerous complaints about the sound of women’s voices, but not the sound of men’s. Almost every woman who has appeared on an auditory show has been attacked for up-speak and vocal fry. If a woman’s voice is “too high” it’s her fault. If a woman’s voice is “too low” it’s her fault. Even powerful women such as Hillary Clinton are mercilessly attacked simply for the sound of their voice. Yet men with the same vocal quirks are rarely called out. NPR personality Bob Garfield implied in an infamously long rant against these qualities that only women suffer from these tics (spoiler alert: men do too).

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Women are told to cut out commonplace words such as “like”, “literally”, and “just” from their speech entirely. Ellen Leanse, former top brass at Google and Apple, wrote an article for Business Insider that says it’s childish for women to use the word “just”, and that it undermines their authority. A plethora of articles deride use of the word “like” in any context other than to show affection. “Like” gets a particularly large amount of hate, and it’s almost exclusively women who are mocked for using it. It’s rare to find an article that doesn’t argue that women are the ones who need to stop saying it.

Let’s recap: women talk too much, their voices sound wrong, and none of the words they use are the “right” ones. Yet, men are never publically shamed for any of these things. By criticizing women for communicating in nearly the exact same manner as men, it silences us. Not to mention it’s extremely misogynistic.

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How these critiques exclude women

When someone cracks a sexist joke about how much women talk, it’s usually as, or right after, a woman has talked. It is used as a not-so-subtle way to shame her for denying men the opportunity to dominate the conversation. It’s rare for a woman to call out the inherent sexism in this; it’ll be laughed off, and the woman will likely drop out of the conversation almost entirely. If she does point out that this is, at the very least, a pretty rude thing to say, she’ll be mocked as “too sensitive”.

Attacking a woman for the sound of her voice is probably the least understated way of silencing a woman. When a woman is condemned for something as uncontrollable as the sound of her voice, it is a way of making her self-conscious, and quieting her. It’s equivalent to writing to your local news station to complain that you don’t like the anchor’s hairstyle. Clearly, the person attacking a woman for this can’t expect her to be able to change it: it’s simply a silencing technique.

The ruthless critiques of women’s diction can be found everywhere, from close friends and family, to articles railing against women for using “Valleyspeak”, and just about everywhere else, too. The one thing these critics are forgetting to consider? What the woman speaking is actually trying to say. By attacking a woman’s diction, you are finding an excuse to ignore her message. Robin Lakoff, a forty year veteran in the study of language and gender, says that “with men, we listen for what they’re saying, their point, their assertions. With women, we tend to listen to how they’re talking, the words they use, what they emphasize, whether they smile.” So by choosing to go after a woman for her word choice, it’s likely that you weren’t paying enough attention to her point. You were choosing to put more importance on how she delivered her message, rather than what the message was. People ignore, or at least place less importance, on these qualities in men. To hold women to a different standard and hold less regard for what they have to say is inherently sexist.

So stop trying to tell women that every time we try to talk, we’re wrong. We are communicating just as men do, and to shame us for that points to a subtle sexist instinct. Ladies, don’t bother trying to change anything about your voice: you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t, when you shouldn’t even be damned at all.

Information gathered from: The Huffington Post ( and, PBS (, The Daily Dot (, New York Magazine (, Slate (, and Business Insider (

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