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A Letter to My Professors

Whose job is it to tell women how to speak in class?


I want to stray a little bit from the general theme of my column and address this piece to my professors, three of whom have recently written me kind emails or spoken to me about my performance in class. Although all have assured me that my comments in seminar are smart, insightful, and productive, they have told me something similar—that if I want to be taken seriously, I should change the way I speak.

I think that they should change the way they listen.

Indeed, it’s a lesson often shared with, usually, young women. We have been trained, or socialized, to speak in a “feminine” way—ending our sentences with question marks instead of periods, inserting “like” or “you know?” every few words, speaking quietly, and qualifying our assertions with phrases like “I’m not really sure if this is relevant, but” and “…sorry that was so incoherent; someone else could probably say that better.” Well-meaning mentors, ranging from teachers, to bosses, to older students, often advise women like me on how to be more respected, gain more credibility, or hold people’s attention and regard more effectively—usually by telling us that we should stop qualifying our remarks, end our statements more decisively, speak up, drop the “like,” and take up more space in conversations. Essentially, this lesson means that if we speak in a feminine way, we will not be respected—and to be respected, we must speak more like men.

What my professors have asked me to do is a form of “leaning in.” Sheryl Sandberg, a Facebook executive, made waves last month when she published "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," a book urging women to gain power in their corporate workplaces by pushing their bosses and coworkers to respect them. By leaning in, Sandberg argues, women can better succeed in traditionally male-dominated spaces.

Feminist authors, bloggers, and speakers responded to Sandberg’s book with an outpouring of critique, arguing that urging individual women to “lean in” not only ignores the structural sexism that keeps women down but also hurts those women without the resources or privilege to “lean.” For example, Deanna Zandt wrote in Forbes that “without simultaneously taking on the structures that keep those norms in place, women are both helping to reproduce those structures over and over… talking about structural discrimination is urgent and necessary now.” Melissa Gira Grant noted in the Washington Post, “There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women.”

These writers follow a long trend of feminists trying to reclaim femininity from a liberal feminist movement that has urged women to push forward and gain power at the expense of femininity.  A couple of years ago, Anna North appealed to women on Jezebel, “The harpy/diva/bitch archetype isn't going to go away because a few women are allowed to sneak around it… teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let's not fall for it.

I, too, used to be convinced that women have a responsibility to change the way they speak in order to empower themselves. I would tell women that I knew that, as I had been told, they should change the way they spoke and presented themselves in order to garner more respect. I am grateful for my feminist friends, who taught me that this not only ignores the structural issues at play in how women speak but also shames women for being “too feminine.” It is not the obligation of quiet women to speak up. It is the obligation of the rest of the room to slow down and listen, because women’s voices are important.

One thing I am sure of is that it’s never good to shame people for who they are or how they talk. People asked to speak differently can also often be those already disempowered by racism and classism, as well as sexism. Women are disempowered by the way we are socialized to speak (and not speak), but also by the fact that when we do act assertive, we are often stereotyped as “bitches”—we can’t win with femininity, and we can’t win without it. I would like to work towards a world in which women can be just as assertive as they want to be and still be respected for their thoughts and insights.

And so I would like to appeal to my professors, peers, and anyone else who mentors women: please don’t tell us to speak differently. If you truly respect us, let us speak as we like, and just pay attention to the words we say.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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