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Talk like a man?

This past December, a college acquaintance gave an interview on New York public radio to discuss a cookbook that she edited for Saveur magazine. Within five minutes of wrapping the interview, she began receiving comments that, due to her “vocal fry,” “Valley-girl uptick,” and “little girl cooing,” she was “unlistenable.” (This woman, by the way, was a former top college debater—neither a Valley nor a little girl.) Public radio listeners told her point-blank to stay off the air in the future. No one commented on the merits of the cookbook.

Normally, I would advise a friend to write this sort of thing off. When you accept the spotlight of the Internet, television or radio, everyone’s a critic. Unfortunately, however, I think my friend’s experience is being repeated across the country — including within the legal profession.

Last year, National Public Radio aired a story called “Can changing how you sound help you find your voice?” in which a female lawyer consulted a speech and language therapist to address her high-pitched and feminine voice. Last month, several lawyer-friends circulated a Business Insider article criticizing women for their overuse of the word “just” (which the article posits sounds unconfident). A response piece further flogged women for their overuse of “sorry.” And this battle isn’t just playing out in the press. I have a friend who, like the woman in the NPR story, worked at law firm that encouraged her to consult a speech therapist to get rid of her “Minnie Mouse” voice, after the law firm had cited her voice as an “area for improvement” on her annual review.

In addition to needing to “Lean In” and close “The Confidence Gap” (two recent top sellers advising women how to act in the workplace), women are now being told to change their voices and syntax. You’re not having the success you want at work? Each one of these articles and books suggests that the problem is likely the woman’s fault.

University of Oxford linguistics professor Deborah Cameron discussed this trend on her blog earlier this month. Cameron made two points: (1) There’s no evidence supporting a claim that women “overuse” certain words; and (2) there’s no research indicating that stereotypically “male” ways of speaking are more effective than stereotypically “female” ways of speaking.

On the first point, Cameron emphasized there is no empirical evidence that women use “sorry” or “just” more frequently than male peers. In other words, the recent spate of articles is based entirely on generalizations drawn from unrepresentative data samples.

On the second point, Cameron questioned the underlying assumption that mimicking “male” behavior is effective. While male lawyers have generally achieved greater career success than female lawyers overall, we don’t know that their communication methods are the reason for their successes. In other words, advising women to “speak more like men” may make as much sense as advising women to wear those silly 1980s bow ties so that they will look more like men.

Cameron’s two points raised a third concern in my mind: Advising women to speak more like men may actually hurt women attorneys’ careers. That’s because advising women to act more like men at work doesn’t always help. At least four studies have shown that people penalize women who initiate negotiations for higher compensation more than they do men. A New Yorker piece (reviewing these studies) suggests that the reason might be that women are evaluated and valued according to different criteria than men. Both men and women, for example, tend to focus more on women’s social skills. Based on this research, it’s conceivable that even if women are using less direct language in the workplace, they may be doing so for good reason. They may correctly perceive that they will be punished for using more direct language. In other words, women may be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

All of this is not to say that we don’t all have room to improve our communication skills. I am and will continue to remain open to any feedback that will help me improve my communication skills. (Let the emails to the author commence!) Lawyers need a complete bag of tricks: We convince, sell, argue, demand, and negotiate on a daily basis. To best serve clients, I rely on my colleagues to help me edit briefs and hone my oral argument presentations. I will happily rely on my editor to help me revise this article. We all crave this type of directed and specific feedback. It’s not based on generalizations. To the contrary, our talented colleagues frequently offer advice knowing the specific judge who will be making the decision or the opposing counsel who will respond to the argument. This advice is helpful. This advice should always be welcome.

But if I could offer a wish for our profession, it would be that we reject attacking differences that simply stem from the fact that (some) women (sometimes) have higher voices or use softer language and focus on substance. So the next time one of those articles falls into my inbox, I plan to hit delete and not forward. I’m sorry, but it’s just not a productive use of my time.

Sybil Dunlop is a litigation practitioner with Greene Espel in Minneapolis.

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