How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts on her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new postings some time in August.


(Friday Post Category–Yes, You Can: Women and Academia)

Authority: The Key to Academic Speaking

Women at all levels of the academic trajectory, from graduate school through tenure, all too frequently speak like wimps.

Ie, in ways that come across as insecure, hesitant, diffident, and non-authoritative.

Women graduate students and junior faculty with whom I’ve worked routinely start with what they “don’t know,” then apologize for “not knowing” it, then make excuses for “not knowing” it, then apologize for making excuses, then feebly advance a claim so clouded in caveats that it is barely recognizable as a scholarly argument, then trail off in vague  queries as to whether “it was clear or not.”

All the while fiddling with their jewelry, fussing with their hair, smiling too much, laughing awkwardly, and glancing anxiously around the room.

You don’t do that, you say?  Maybe you don’t and that’s good.

But more likely you do and just don’t know it.  Because nobody has ever called it out for what it is:  women’s learned patterns of deference to (male) authority.

Let me say that again, louder:


For women in academia, this is a career-killer.  Academic legitimacy is based on scholarly authority.  To the extent that you fail to express yourself authoritatively (which doesn’t mean obnoxiously, by the way) you make yourself invalid as a scholar.

The best way to explain the contrast between deferential and authoritative speech is through role play.  In the following videos I demonstrate first, the deferential woman scholar, and second, the authoritative woman scholar, confronting a fairly hostile challenge to their work.

I play both roles, first the challenger, then the speaker.  Because I initially framed the video as a job talk Q & A session, where stakes are high, egos on full display, and muted aggression common, I am in high defense mode.  Naturally this can be toned down for a graduate seminar or conference.  The basic message, however, remains the same.

The hostile questioner attacks the speaker’s argument, which, she claims, “flies directly in the face of the central thesis advanced by “Nelson.”  Nelson, we are given to understand, is an extremely well known and influential person in the field (Nelson is total fiction, not based on any real individuals, living or dead).

****Be aware, that in neither case has the speaker read the new article by Nelson.  This is all pure performance.****

(Please excuse their low production quality. I hope to improve on this as we move forward at The Professor Is In. The glare on my glasses is annoying, I know.)

The Deferential Public Speaker

Video 1: (if it is missing below, please click here)

The Authoritative Public Speaker

Video 2:  (if it is missing below, please click here)


Never Apologize!

Some might call this bluffing, but it is not. The speaker shows a calm substantive command of the literature in her field, and has a confident sense of her own distinct place within it.

She never needs to apologize for not having read something! She does not need to read every piece of writing in her field to understand its basic organization and politics. She can improvise with both substance, and style.

The goal in all such encounters is to stand up for yourself. Nothing more, nothing less. In this particular case, the message is:   Nelson is important, I am not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him.  In short, I am an important young scholar.

Confident, relaxed body language, firm, fearless eye contact, and a declarative tone…. all of these say, in academic code, “you talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to ME?”

And then finish strong:   NOT, feebly, “did that answer your question??” but with firm, healthy boundaries: “Next Question?”

**Regular readers will have noticed that this post is strangely similar to Wednesday’s post, “Deflecting the Hostile Question at a Job Talk!” I realized that my point in that post was really something larger and much more important—how WOMEN, specifically, talk like wimps. So I’m revised the post, and reposted it here.**


How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career — 10 Comments

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  2. Thank you. I read this before going to a talk to meet a VIP in order to pitch my project. VIP heads up a new group, and I want to present a paper to the group to improve my work and add that CV line.

    I was a badass, shaking VIP’s hand firmly and getting an invitation to send him my abstract and paper so he can consider my request. But later, I fell into a deferential, apologetic, uncertain response pattern when a former student told a group of professors that I came to class unprepared. (This after I nicely corrected him for giving a professor credit for orchestrating a class project that I had organized and run as a TA.)

    So I wept and gnashed my teeth. Then I reread this post and watched the videos before picking another VIP up from the airport.

    I knocked his socks off. We had a great rapport. I was a good listener, but I behaved like a colleague with interesting questions and answers for him. All ideas and no apologies.

  3. I second the “What do you recommend people do in the case that you’re asked a question about a article/book that you, in fact, haven’t read?” question. Or a theorist you perhaps have never ever heard of, for one reason or the other?

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