This might be totally wrong, but…

So, like, I hope you don’t mind, if I just like, you know, share, something with you. It’s probably complete rubbish and I know you’ll know way more about this than me, but I thought, if it’s OK with you, we could think together about how women use their voices and what it means.. I mean you can totally like ignore this if you want… but…

My son said recently about his sister: “Every single time she opens her mouth to talk to anyone in the world, she prefaces it with: ‘This is literally the most boring thing ever but…’ “

It got me thinking about girls’ habits of speech and those creeping qualifying clauses and uncertainties that sneak in and undermine our points however brilliant they may be.

The voices of girls matter– they matter in school all the time – when they are figuring stuff out in lessons, wrestling with complicated ideas, or problems they don’t understand, or feeling passionately about something, or standing their ground in debate. High School pupils’ ideas are amazing. Their views are of real importance. They have so much to say, as just a few moments in School Council will tell us, or the School Officers’ Let’s Talk podcasts or just being in the common room or classrooms in break.

This is a school full of active minds and engaged articulacy… But here’s the thing. We – and I mean most of the women and girls in school –need to think about how we go about using our voice.

Because, is it just me, or do we sometimes take up an overly tentative tone when presenting ideas? I’m no expert, but I think it might be something we do…

But why? We know women speak earlier and with greater complexity and a fuller vocabulary than men. Our language is generally more expressive and yet we are also much more likely to undermine our points in order to make others feel at ease. This can have a value of course. The softening or reining in of opinion can be practical and thoughtful. Those deferential subclauses can be a helpful social and professional emollient, but as a gender we are surely prone to this beyond what is effective, or even charming. We over-qualify and undersell ourselves and our ideas. Why is this?

The issue may be cultural. Does our society still prize above all female voices that reflect traditional characteristics of humility, politeness and charm. Do women simply not want to be seen as naggy or boat-rocking; itself a legacy of centuries of public and political voicelessness? Or is it not gendered at all, but a British trait? British self-deprecation is certainly recognised worldwide. It’s likely to be a combination of things, but it needs tackling, so that our girls who are preparing to take leadership roles across the professional world (and thereby challenge the status quo by their very presence) can do so with authority, conviction and clarity.

Self-deprecation is self-defeating if it becomes the default mode. One of my targets this year will be to aim to cut down my own phatic qualifying clauses. I hope our wonderful, articulate, intelligent St Albans High School girls will ditch such verbal dithering and go for the charm of clear unvarnished assurance.

If that all makes sense…


Jenny Brown, Headmistress, St Albans High School for Girls

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