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Uptalk: Can We Stop Policing Women's Voices?

For decades, women have been attempting to imitate men in the workplace. When the number of working women increased by 27% in the 1980s, shoulder pads became a fad — a symbolic clothing feature that made women feel as if they occupied a larger physical space and appeared more masculine. In a 1990 Fortune article, women were advised to “Look like a lady; act like a man; work like a dog.” More recently, women in Silicon Valley have felt pressured to “dress down” and adopt the hoodie-and-jeans ensemble that has become a standard look (likely inspired by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg). Women have even been encouraged to alter something very intimate and innate: their voices.

Yes, their voices.

Women are often told their voices are a “problem.” They’re too high-pitched, child-like, and quaver too much. They don’t hold the “right” amount of confidence. They need to be fine-tuned to a “better pitch.” Even former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had elocution lessons to help her lower the register of her voice and sound more authoritative. One specific complaint about women’s speech tendencies has to do with uptalk.

Uptalk is a manner of speaking in which sentences are ended with an upward lilt, as in the form of a question. This vocal inflection is sometimes referred to as upspeak and is often associated (derogatorily) with the “Valley Girl” cadence. For years, people have regarded uptalk as an unprofessional way of speaking. People believe it shows unprofessionalism, a lack of confidence, or inexperience.

But what if the problem isn’t this manner of speaking but society’s view of it?

In truth, using uptalk has myriad advantages. It can be viewed as more inclusive and less aggressive. It can convey a willingness to listen and collaborate by welcoming differing viewpoints and perspectives. In some cases, uptalk can be used to “hold the floor,” since this way of speaking can indicate that the speaker has not yet completed their thought.

‘Uptalk’ can welcome new ideas and perspectives for a more innovative team.

What, then, is the problem?

Mainly, the issue at the heart of uptalk is its association with typically feminine traits. This way of speaking comes naturally to many women, who have traditionally been taught to be peacemakers, good listeners, and empathetic. There’s a subtly that goes along with these traits. Unlike stereotypical male communication (loud, direct, brash), “feminine” communication (we’re talking in very general terms here) is traditionally less direct and more concerned with tone of voice.

And one’s tone of voice does matter. According to recent neurological studies, the brain is highly attuned to picking up “subtle meanings” in vocal inflection. Several areas of the brain work together to interpret meaning, and the brain is always actively seeking those meanings. So, it’s no wonder uptalk has a tendency to foster inclusiveness and welcome new ideas. Listeners pick up on a willingness to accept new ideas and collaborate simply through interpreting the tone of voice.

On the flip side, what might an aggressive voice convey? Or a flat, even-toned voice?

All this is to say, women’s manner of speaking is not accidental and should not be quashed. In fact, the traits associated with this way of speaking (empathy, sensitivity, caring, and compassion) are often viewed as highly valuable leadership skills.

How can your workplace empower women to maintain their true voices?

1. Lead by Example

When women are speaking, listen! Take them seriously. Don’t get hung up on the tone, softness, loudness, or quality of their voice. Do not interrupt them or talk over them. If others attempt to cut a woman off while she’s speaking, hold up a hand and say, “Wait, I don’t think Sarah is quite done making her point.” Your actions and advocacy for women matter.

Be an advocate for women’s voices — they should be heard!

2. Intentionally Give Women the Floor

Entrust women with presentations, leading team meetings, and hosting brainstorming sessions. Give women the microphone frequently and make sure they have uninterrupted blocks of time to speak. Making sure women frequently have the floor will normalize women’s speech patterns and will convey that their voices, thoughts, and leadership are important (because they are!).

3. Empower Women Through Development Programs

Change must be multifaceted. Not only do workplaces need to give women a platform, but women must also feel comfortable and empowered enough to claim that space. To bolster women’s confidence and help them step into their power (no matter the tone or inflection of their voice!), consider enrolling your female leaders in a development program. Our program, In HER Element, is a cohort program, centering around neuroscience and creating sustainable, transformative change. There are many programs out there; find the one that best suits the women in your office.

It’s time we stop policing women’s voices and empower them to speak in ways that come naturally to them. Even though uptalk gets a bad rap, it can be a powerful method for fostering inclusivity, establishing a sense of equality, and even “holding the floor.” Instead of demanding that women change the way they speak, let’s focus on changing our attitude toward those speech patterns.


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