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Are Linguistics The New Forefront Of Diversity Initiatives?

Women are criticized for vocal fry, and hiring managers are biased against accents. Building the case for linguistic diversity at work.

Are Linguistics The New Forefront Of Diversity Initiatives?
[Photo: bekulnis for Shutterstock]

Lately, much attention has been paid to how women—especially young women—speak. Linguistic styles like vocal fry and “upspeak” or “uptalk” have been examined—first for the irritation they cause some people, then for how women are more frequently criticized for such vocal habits than men, even though there’s no evidence that men are any less likely to speak this way.

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“I think that women are often subject to greater linguistic scrutiny than men are,” says linguist John Baugh, a professor of English, psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. “My own observation is that [women’s] language is coming under closer scrutiny in professional circumstances.”

Professionalism—Or Something Else?

Some of those who criticize such vocal styles point to research about how it can hurt young women in the workplace. University of Chicago researchers found, in an April 2015 study published in the journal Psychological Science, that hiring managers and recruiters were more interested in hiring those people with whom they spoke rather than those who submitted written material about their credentials.

At the same time it can take just seconds to make an impression about that person’s speech—a March 2014 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that people make judgments about us based on how we say “hello.” And the impression of such linguistic styles often isn’t good. Another 2014 PLOS ONE study found that women who speak in a creaky vocal fry voice may be hurting their job prospects. The study found that young women, more than young men, who used vocal fry were “perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable.”

But Fern L. Johnson, research professor of English at Clark University, says these characteristics are nothing new—uptalk in particular has been getting attention episodically since the 1970s, she says. There are situations where such speech habits don’t matter at all, but the kerfuffle around them is often directed at women, because women “continue to be held to a standard where the idea is that they need to conform more to the way men speak,” she says.

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Trish McDermott, cofounder of Panic Media Training, sees the tendencies in both men and women, and says that these styles can convey a sense of immaturity and insecurity that can be damaging. But there’s also a diversity issue related to the assumptions made about how people speak.

“Where you came from, how the people spoke in your family, your community, and your school—that really is your authentic self,” she says.

The Case for Linguistic Diversity

Baugh, who studies linguistic profiling, says gender-based language bias is important to note, and also part of a bigger conversation. While women are subject to a linguistic double-standard, so are a number of other groups that are expected to conform to uniform language styles. Linguistics may be the new forefront of diversity initiatives, he says.

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In many cases, an employee’s speech habits or styles may not matter or affect his or her ability to do the job well. In those cases, Baugh maintains that managers who dismiss candidates out-of-hand because of different linguistic styles may be letting great talent walk out the door, because they’re using an outdated mode of evaluating candidates. Similar judgments are made about people because of regional accents or racial or ethnic accents or dialects, Baugh says. Becoming aware of such knee-jerk reactions can help managers look beyond the speech attributes and focus more on the candidate’s strengths.

“To have a better understanding and appreciation of potential talents among people whose initial linguistic impressions may not strike one as favorable takes a great deal of discipline,” he says. Snap linguistic judgments made because the way someone speaks strikes you the wrong way are a poor way to evaluate potential, he says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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