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Why we don’t hear women as authoritative

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mary beard, pat glass, women's voices, regional accents, authority, parliament‘Prejudice is hardwired into our culture, language and history’.

In a recent London Review of Books lecture, Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, said that ‘When as listeners we hear a female voice, we haven’t learned how to hear authority in it.’

She goes on to say that there is simply no neurological reason. Such assumptions and prejudices are ‘hardwired’ into ‘our culture, our language and millennia of our history.’

Women’s interventions were often described as “strident” or “whining” – and, Beard said, “that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people “whinge” over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words,” the Guardian reported.

“Contrast that with the ‘deep-voiced’ man, and its connotations of profundity. It is still the case, I’d argue, that when as listeners we hear a female voice, we don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather we haven’t learned how to hear authority in it.”

Part of a talk Beard gave recently, she explained, ‘reflected on the ways that women are often urged to ape male rhetorical techniques to get their points across.

‘The classic example is of course Margaret Thatcher, who was specifically trained to speak lower to gove her high pitch voice more authority.

‘I wanted to question the idea that women had to pretend to be men in order to find a voice. Wasn’t that just making them more outsiders, turning them into actors not orators? Shouldn’t we think instead about how we might learn to find women’s (natural) voices authoritative?

And, she continued, ‘one point that came up time and again from the women I met who had been on “communication courses” was that they had all been urged to lower their voices and speak more like blokes. And indeed most who talked to me about it felt that it was in the long term counter productive.’

Her comments came as Durham North West MP Pat Glass wrote in The Independent about male Conservative party backbench MPs in the House of Commons regularly jeering at women speaking in the Chamber, particularly women with accents.

Jeering so loudly they drown out the woman’s voice.

Glass said, ‘Cameron’s Government seems to have a real problem with women. Many of his backbenchers also have a problem with class and make that clear when a woman with an accent gets up to speak.

‘It is clear they believe that we have no place in their hallowed presence and our voices need to be drowned out.’

Women with any sort of regional accent ‘regularly come in for a seemingly orchestrated barraging’, and younger women MPs are attacked even more vociferously than older women.

Glass said these incidents are often not seen by the public because the camera is focused on the person speaking.

In her lecture, Beard also mentioned the treatment of women MPs and the recent abuse of women via Twitter.

She said, ‘It doesn’t matter what line you take as a woman.

‘It is not what you say that prompts it [the abuse] – it is the fact that you are saying it.’

Beard said that she is trying to get people to think calmly, analytically and historically about gender inequality and that while misogyny is often an apt description, there is a much longer, broader societal context that needs to be addressed.

She recommends ‘old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising’ that asks why we demand such a high price from women who want to enter public debate.

Glass reckons nothing will change until more women become MPs.

And as the Fawcett Society said in an article publicising its latest campaign to get more women into Parliament, ‘the more of us there are, the harder we are to ignore.’

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