“Is she sick?” This was a question that people had asked my mom from the moment I could speak. I learned how to talk early, carrying full conversations with my parents’ friends by the age of two. The abnormal depth and raspiness of my two-year-old voice shocked people, often leading them to ask my parents if I had a cold or if I was getting over a sickness. These comments about my voice continued into grade school. During roll call, substitute teachers would shoot their eyes up from the class roster when I said “Here!” While most teachers would make fleeting remarks about the huskiness of my voice, the reaction of one specific fifth-grade substitute teacher stuck with me. “Cara Starnes?” “Here,” Cara responded. “Ellie Sulla?” “Here.” The teacher paused and looked up in confusion. “Oh, sorry. I was confused. I thought that was a boy’s voice,” she said with a chuckle. “Anna Swanson?” She continued to call roll. Since then, I have been chronically aware of my voice, what I sound like to others, and the voice’s profound power over people’s perceptions and opinions.
The study of language, while often reduced to the acquisition of foreign tongues, is more accurately the study of a cultural, social, and psychological phenomenon. Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and it holds significance beyond the academic world. Aiming to decipher what is unique and what is universal about the language we use, linguistics scholars investigate aspects of language such as “semantics and syntax, phonetics and phonology, [as well as their] social, psychological and computational aspects.” Slight differences in language often go unnoticed, but not for linguistic scientists who understand how these linguistic aspects can indicate the biases of an individual and provide insight into the role of language in social interactions. For instance, the simple sentence, “girls are as good as boys at math,” indicates bias. The mere structure of the sentence, whether purposeful or not, sets the male sex as the standard for math expertise and thus implies that being good at math is more common or natural for boys over girls (Shashkevich). This is just one phrase exemplifying the importance of linguistics and how our language use reflects our personal and societally inflicted beliefs.
More specifically, the study of the relationship between language and society is known as sociolinguistics ( What Is Linguistics? ). The domains of sociolinguistics include social dialectology (the studies of social stratification and minority group speech), language situations (language as a means of group identification and functional style), and attitudes towards language (Shuy 13). Sociolinguistics recognizes the implications of linguistics in everyday social interactions. The field works to explain how “the matrix of a linguistic situation” matters for understanding why people talk differently depending on their social context as well as why they stigmatize certain linguistic elements (18).
In sixth grade, my class had to give our very first solo PowerPoint presentations. I was relieved that my presentation slot was at the end of the period. My best friend, however, was one of the first students in the class to present and if I could tell you what her presentation was about, I would. However, I spent her entire 8-minute presentation counting how many times she said the word “like.” I lost count after 31. I wondered if my other classmates noticed how much she was saying “like.” Maybe someone else had made it past “like” number 31. As I observed pairs of boys in the class whisper and chuckle, I knew they were making fun of her. As her friend, I wanted to yell at them, but as a fellow audience member, I agreed. Her overuse of the word “like” was irritating, infuriating, and impossible to ignore. With every “like” that escaped her mouth, my face grew warmer and warmer from secondhand embarrassment. I could feel the tension in the air increase as if the class was counting her “likes” in unison, wincing with each additional tally mark. Mr. Barone’s third-period tech class made fun of her for the remainder of the fourth, fifth, and sixth periods. Kids mocked her saying, “I like totally like want to get like a Starbucks drink after school.” In fear of being mocked as my friend was, I paid close attention to my use of “like” and “umm” for the rest of the day and then some.
That sixth-grade presentation stuck with me to this day. I still have severe awareness over my use of filler words, sometimes taking full conversational pauses to restructure my sentence and evade the use of “like.” Boys do not do this. From the valley girl accent to the voice boys use when imitating girls they don’t fancy (regardless of what their voices genuinely sound like), filler words such as “like” and “umm” are negatively feminized. These discourse markers, although viciously stereotyped as habits of young women are, in fact, not truly limited to women. In numerous statistically significant studies, men were found to use “like” more frequently than women. Filler words are used by speakers regardless of their gender or age, so it’s interesting that people only notice and subsequently get annoyed by these speech patterns when spoken by a young woman (Luu).
It is thus no surprise that women are especially likely to style-shift to more “prestigious” language forms during formal situations, such as public speaking, where they feel likely to be judged (Gordon 51). For example, women will style-shift and drop certain stigmatized speech patterns in an attempt to adhere to a more “standard” language (Luu). Put simply, women often try to speak in a banal way that is least likely to elicit a negative impression. (Women altering their behaviors and actions for the comfort of their company is another theme that I could go on about, but it deserves an essay, or two, of its own). All this leaves me to wonder: would my friend have been made fun of if she wasn’t a girl playing into the female filler word stereotype? Probably. Yet, despite knowing that “likes” and “umms” are wrongly solely associated with women, here I am still avoiding filler words in fear of being scrutinized as my friend was back in sixth grade.
That was sixth grade. In middle school, it didn’t really matter how smart you were. By contrast, in high school, with college just around the corner, grade point averages, test scores, and peer-perceived intelligence were suddenly the three metrics by which others appraised you. High school was also a time when students were expected to start narrowing down their academic focus and thinking about their professional goals. While my friend group of girls took marketing and entrepreneurship electives together, I split off into my AP chemistry classroom of 22 boys and six girls, counting myself. Being in a male-dominated classroom for the first time, I felt the constant need to prove my intellect and validity as a STEM student. I found myself speaking louder and deeper when I answered my teacher’s questions and using big words when chatting with my classmates. I made sure not to utter a single “like” or “umm.”
As previously mentioned, women tend to switch their speech style more often and more dramatically than men, specifically in formal situations (Gordon 51). Women have a particular awareness of how their speech style affects their audience’s judgments of them and thus engage in avoidant behavior to evade any possible adherence to the negative female linguistic stereotype. Explanations for this behavioral phenomenon stem back to the fact that traditional forms of female labor such as housework and child-rearing lacked high status and prestige. Men, on the other hand, were innately embedded in the professional world, enabling masculinity to possess this natural and automatic prestige. Women are therefore more conscious of their social statuses simply because they lack the natural prestige and social status that men have had handed to them (47-48). Elizabeth Gordon in her journal article, “Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men,” explains the speech habits of women:
“The linguistic behavior of women is not so much a matter of self-promotion as a matter of avoidance… Women [speak] in certain ways not because they want to appear ‘better’ than they really are, but because they want to avoid the negative stereotype [attached to being a woman]” (48).
This was exactly the case in my high school chemistry class. Perhaps this reflects my subconscious internalized misogyny, but I felt the need to prove myself different from my girlfriends who forwent the sciences for the more typically feminine field of marketing and communications.
Walking from my male-dominated biology classroom to my high school’s cafeteria gave me exactly three and a half minutes to code-switch. Code-switching is the adjustment one makes to their speech style, appearance, and behavior depending on their social context or conversational setting often to optimize the comfort of others (Gordon 51; McCluney et al.). After biology class, I would eat my lunch out of a reusable Lululemon bag around a circular cafeteria table occupied by the identical Lululemon lunches of my girlfriends. Here, speech habits deemed stereotypically feminine such as filler words, upspeak, (the turned-up intonation at the end of a sentence that can make a statement sound like a question), and breathiness (which is caused by the fact women have a larger gap at the back of their vocal cords that allows more air to pass through) flew under the radar (Watson). Here, I made sure to omit words I worried would sound too technical or make me seem like a know-it-all, which vastly differed from my behavior in the classroom just minutes prior. Attempting to optimize the comfort of my girlfriends, I code-switched.
As the professional world edges into my near-er future, the diminishment of the female voice in STEM grows more and more apparent. Throughout my four years at USC, I have been repeatedly reminded of the difficulties that come with pursuing science as a woman. Though I think this has compelled me to work harder in school and distinguish myself from my male classmates, the stigma of being a woman in STEM certainly boasts its discouraging effects. In my high school science classes, the diminishment that came with being a “woman in STEM” didn’t forcefully exist. Although there was an evident lack of girls in my class, the minoritization manifested as a confident urge to demonstrate my intelligence. I was loud and tenacious. I shot my hand up at every question that the teacher asked, motivated to prove myself as a student and a future science professional. However, as the reality of the sexism and bias present in the professional world reveals itself, I find myself in my college lecture halls and lab benches hesitating to raise my hand or ask questions. Sometimes, I will go from biochemistry to physics to biostatistics to home and realize I hadn’t spoken a word the entire school day.
Linguistics plays a substantial role in the collegiate and professional realms, specifically for women. The field sheds light on how the ways men and women talk can perpetuate gender bias and inequality. In professional settings, women are frequently interrupted, talked over, and misheard when they speak. This is largely a product of the biological features of the female voice and how it compares to those of men. Male voices tend to be deeper because of the testosterone released during male puberty that causes the vocal cords to elongate and thicken (Watson). The mean fundamental speaking voice frequencies for women and men, therefore, differ and are 168.5 Hertz and 111.9 Hertz respectively (Krahé et al.). Lower-pitched voices, which are more common amongst men, have more resonance and thus sound louder, perhaps explaining why people deem lower voices as more authoritative. Higher-pitched voices, on the other hand, sound more youthful and can consequently raise issues of authority for female professionals (Watson). Two experiments performed in 2021 examined the impact of voice pitch on gender stereotyping and found that, regardless of the speaker’s sex, subjects rated higher-pitched voices to be more feminine, less competent, and less masculine whereas the subjects perceived lower-pitched voices to be more dominant and more competent (Krahé et al.).
Naturally, women have higher voices that are deemed less compatible with professional legitimacy and success. Women are consequently encouraged to talk like men if they want to reduce their interruption. I fell victim to this with my fear of filler words and superfluous use of grandiloquence. However, even the most successful female professionals are advised to stray away from verbal habits that are socially considered feminine. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worked with a coach to lower her vocal pitch as she was told it would make her sound more authoritative. Numerous female Supreme Court justices were instructed to adapt their speech and “use fewer hedging or prefacing phrases like, ‘can I ask,’ or ‘excuse me,’ to avoid being interrupted” (Watson). Yet if the professional world believes women must change the way they speak to succeed in job interviews, careers, or even life in general, how can they be expected to professionally excel with human biology and societal stereotypes actively working against them?
The field of linguistics matters. It has played a significant role in my life and has caused me to understand the gravity my voice holds when it comes to the impression I leave on others. From my conditioned omission of filler words to code-switching in and out of the classroom, linguistics has taught me how a specific and strategic method of verbalization can matter more than the content of the speech. My personal experience with and subsequent appreciation for the field of linguistics, however, is part of a larger experience and it is important to recognize the field’s greater application to the professional world. With job interviews and business pitches drawing considerable attention to the interviewee or presenter’s voice, the way a person sounds may unfairly and inaccurately impact the interviewer or audience’s assessment. This perpetuates bias and inequity in the workplace. Recognizing and addressing the significance of linguistics and linguistic bias is therefore a crucial step toward creating proper equitable space for women in the workplace.
Gordon, Elizabeth. “Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More Than Men.” Language in Society , vol. 26, no. 1, 1997, pp. 47–63,
Krahé, Barbara, Andreas Uhlmann, and Meike Herzberg. “The Voice Gives It Away: Male and Female Pitch as a Cue for Gender Stereotyping.” Social Psychology , vol. 52, no. 2, 2021, pp. 101-113. ProQuest,
Luu, Chi. “The Totally ‘Destructive’ (Yet Oddly Instructive) Speech Patterns of … Young Women?” JSTOR Daily , 5 Apr. 2017,
McCluney, Courtney, et al. “The Costs of Code-Switching.” Harvard Business Review , 28 Jan. 2021, https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-costs-of-codeswitching.
Morrison, Carlos D. “Code-Switching.” Encyclopædia Britannica , Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/code-switching.
Shashkevich, Alex. “The Power of Language: How Words Shape People, Culture.” Stanford News , 22 Aug. 2019,
Shuy, Roger W. “The Relevance of Sociolinguistics for Language Teaching.” TESOL Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1, 1969, pp. 13–22, https://doi.org/10.2307/3586038.
Watson, Stephanie. “The Unheard Female Voice: Women are more likely to be talked over and unheeded. But SLPs can help them speak up and be heard.” (2019): 44-53. “What Is Linguistics?” University at Buffalo Department of Linguistics , 2 Oct. 2017, https://arts-sciences.buffalo.edu/linguistics/about/what-is-linguistics.html.