Author discusses perceptions of speech, realities of gender

Assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston Rachel McKinnon, delivered a lecture called “Gender, Power and the Norms of Indirect Assertion,” on Friday Feb. 6, including advice on how to re-appropriate one type of unconscious sexism.

Women’s Action Coalition, Pride Alliance and the women and gender studies department invited McKinnon to Geneseo to share research from her forthcoming book Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies, and Warrant.

As the first scholar in her field to consider the identity of the assertive speaker, McKinnon was able to share information on the perceived differences in speaking and assertion by women and men, as well as the consequences of these perceived differences.

In discussing assertion, McKinnon was careful to highlight its more subtle forms like indirect language, a speech act that is supposed to act as another. People in low-power positions are known to utilize indirect speech to subtly and inoffensively accomplish the job of a high-power speech act like a command or assertion. Indirect language, however, presents the dangerous possibility of discursive injustice—the result when one type of speech act is misinterpreted for a weaker one, such as a request or a question.

Even women who avoid indirect language experience discursive justice frequently, partially because they are not expected to fully utilize any power they may be granted.

“We know that women professors tend to deal with more behavioral problems like student compliance with policies, with students openly challenging our policies in class,” McKinnon said. “The issue is that class policies are in a sense a command; students have an obligation to fulfill them. But if they’re treated as requests or merely suggestions, then when women faculty enforce our policies, we can be seen as too demanding or unreasonable.”

In addition to up-talking––more commonly known as “valley girl” speech––tag questions and indirect language are considered to be low-power language because of their supposed femininity. McKinnon, however, explained a twist on this widely-accepted association.

“It turns out that when you actually do the data collection on the frequency and prevalence of up-talking, tag questions and indirectness, men and women do it equally. Go back and watch some of [former President] George W. Bush’s speeches,” she said. “It’s up-talking. We all do it, and yet we perceive it more often in women than in men. And then it gets punished more when women do it than when men do it.”

The conclusion of McKinnon’s research suggested that indirect speech could be the most effective form of assertion available for people—especially women—in low-power positions.

Because speech is still considered to be highly gendered and indicative of one’s level of power, and because sexism still abounds in the workplace, direct assertions made by low-power women can result in unjust social and professional consequences.

“Women, for example, struggle to assert influence when they convey confidence and authority, but we tend to do better when we conform to gender expectations,” McKinnon said.

Later, she confronted some questions about the ethics of condoning women’s strategic utilization of indirect speech.

“I’m not saying this is a good thing,” she said. “I’m just saying that this is how things are right now. There are social consequences for breaking or matching gender schemas.”