Recently Virginia Trioli on ABC radio interviewed two cartoonists about the defining characteristics of Julia Gillard as PM. She wanted to know what her quirks are, which bits of her they intend to pick on. In the catalogue of possibilities Trioli named Gillard‘s ‘metronomic’ spoken delivery.
I think she was talking about the evenness of Gillard’s pitch and pace. But 'metronomic'? As in mechanical, inflexible, automatic? That’s not fair. And why raise it anyway? Why is it even an issue? Kristina Keneally, the NSW Premier, gets similar treatment. ‘They’re doing a good job with her’ people say sagely. I try to believe they might have said the same thing about Nathan Rees or Morris Iemma, but I just can’t. We never saw Kevin Rudd condemned for monotony of tone and thought, Tony Abbot’s piercing nasal twang is not newsworthy, and Malcolm Turnbull’s rich gift for oratory was rarely mentioned.
The truth? Gillard and Keneally’s voices are newsworthy because they’re female.
An ancient and enduring demarcation gave women their voice in the domestic sphere, while men had it in public. It's still shaping expectation about the roles we’ve all played for generations.
A recent article in the Washington Post wonders if Obama is a ‘female’ president.
‘We've come a long way gender-wise. Not so long ago, women would be censured for speaking or writing in public. But cultural expectations are stickier and sludgier than oil. Our enlightened human selves may want to eliminate gender norms, but our lizard brains have a different agenda.
Women, inarguably, still are punished for failing to adhere to gender norms by acting "too masculine" or "not feminine enough." In her fascinating study about "Hating Hillary," Karlyn Kohrs Campbell details the ways our former first lady was chastised for the sin of talking like a lawyer and, by extension, "like a man." ‘
Disconcertingly it’s justified these days by a view that women and men have different communication styles. Put simply, women supposedly talk to connect, men to establish their status. Women talk to strengthen bonds. Men to assert their independence.
These traits are used to explain the glass ceiling. They’re said to make it more difficult for women to succeed at work. They are used as proof of female unsuitability for power. We are less likely to speak out, and therefore easier to ignore. More likely to be modest, and therefore not get promoted, more likely avoid confrontation, and therefore not able to do the tough stuff. In Australia’s Federal Parliament, women MPs make up a third of the numbers but ask far fewer questions than men. In the British parliament, women call out and interrupt less frequently than men.
Some linguists have research that supports the idea that women’s language is distinct but I’m more persuaded by the ones who don’t. I think it’s as believable as Men being from Mars and women from Venus. It feels intuitively correct – because it’s playing to a stereotype we all recognise.
Deborah Cameron at Oxford says flatly it’s a myth – when there are differences they are statistically insignificant, and she cites studies to prove it depends on who you’re studying and what the context is. That’s the key. Female MPs don’t ask questions because the party whips don’t set them up for it. They don’t call out because (as women in male dominated industries like IT and engineering know), the men in the place can make you feel pretty unwelcome. You don’t want to stick your head up for it to be shot off.
Having the domestic sphere under our control, is it so surprising that girls and women learned to value connection, defuse conflict, and to create bonds through listening, empathy, interest and concern? Isn’t that sort of understanding you want at home? And doesn’t it make sense for their male partners go out into the dangerous world of breadwinning, profit making and governing, armed with combative and selfserving survival-speak ? All each gender did was develop a communication style that worked for the situation we’re in. Men are from earth and women are from earth. Deal with it .
Ingrained behaviours and beliefs are not overturned in an instant. Female heads of state are still rare. All Gillard and Keneally really have to do is the job. Their communication style should be judged only by how well it suits their office.