Woman finding her voice

There’s not just a leadership gap and a wage gap for women — there’s a communication gap. Women don’t talk as much as men do, and when they do, it doesn’t always help their cause.

A recent study by Yale University found that when men spoke up more at workplace meetings, they were given higher competence ratings. When women spoke up more, they were perceived as 14 percent less competent.

Women make up about 20 percent of lawmaking bodies. And when a female lawmaker speaks, she uses on average just 60 percent of the floor time that the average male lawmaker uses, according to a study by Tali Mendelberg at Princeton University and Christopher F. Karpowitz at Brigham Young University.

Partially because of all that, women’s vocal habits are often dissected — it’s a hot topic today. Vocal fry is the most common example. It’s the rough, low, creaky sound when speaking that’s often attributed to the Kardashian clan. Young women are accused of using it a lot. Or, some people think women apologize too much.

Critics who worry that women are under-cutting themselves by using these mannerisms want them to get their vocal act together and sound more authoritative. Others push back on that critique, saying, “Let women sound how they sound, and back off the vocal policing already. Voice-shaming, like body-shaming, is never OK.”

The real problem is this: We aren’t used to women taking up space. Yes, that goes for women’s bodies, but it applies equally to their voices. An obvious fact: You need to breathe to speak. And women have been told to suck in their stomachs from the age of 12 to take up as little room as possible, to look thin. At meetings, they tend to sit in compact ways, with legs twisted around each other like a knot. Using your voice with power and confidence doesn’t come easily when you can’t release your abdominal muscles enough to breathe.

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Some women rush through their sentences when they get the floor, afraid of being interrupted or of boring the people listening. And there are other ways of being vocally subservient. Ever sound like you’re auditioning for “Alvin and the Chipmunks” when you’re talking to the alpha at your workplace? It happens.

I’ve coached smart, accomplished and inspiring women who tell me that if they can get away with it, they’d just as soon not talk. Or that talking in a meeting feels like a tightrope walk. When they get done, they feel demoralized and incompetent.

But it’s not their fault. Most women never learn the fullness of their own voices, the power and range they possess — and the courage to use them. That’s because it doesn’t come naturally yet for a woman to hold the room with her thoughts, ideas and voice. And judging by the latest research, society isn’t ready either.

There’s still an unspoken pressure for little girls to be quieter than little boys, and for women to blend in rather than stand out. It’s mostly unspoken, but it’s there. Women sense that, and they pull back.

Take vocal fry. It’s more than the irritating habit some people claim. It’s actually a retraction of energy, a swallowing of tone and vocal inflection. In a way, it’s about becoming voice-less.

Your voice is your birthright. But its full ownership isn’t something women and girls are taught in our culture. Not yet. We need to learn it ourselves, and at the top of our lungs if necessary. In the meantime, society needs all the practice it can get learning to listen.

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Rueckert, of Middleton, is a voice coach who co-hosts “Central Time” on Wisconsin Public Radio: veronicarueckertcoaching.com and rueckertcoaching@gmail.com.