That Time I Policed a Woman’s Voice


I recently read an article about “radical candor” in the workplace (the idea that supervisors should give very direct feedback to their team) that contained a shocking anecdote.

While at Google, a woman named Kim Scott gave a presentation to senior management. She was nervous, but overall felt the presentation had gone well and could tell that the owners of the company were pleased. But afterward her boss – who happened to be Sheryl Sandberg – took her aside to give her some feedback on her presentation style. At first Sheryl was gentle with her criticisms of Kim’s public speaking, but could tell none of it was landing. According to Kim, Sheryl finally said, ‘You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.’”

At first Sandberg’s comment seemed startlingly direct to me, even offensive. But I realized that I’d done something similar to someone I used to manage.

Victoria, who I’ve written about before, was very good at her job but could be difficult to communicate with. One of the things I’d observed was that she sometimes used upspeak (the habit of ending sentences in a rising tone). It made her sound like she was uncertain of herself – even when I was sure she knew what she was talking about. As part of her written review, which was otherwise glowing, I wrote, “[Victoria] sometimes uses upspeak, which can make her sound unsure of herself and her knowledge when I know she is anything but.”

Together we discussed everything I’d written. I didn’t think twice about mentioning the feedback about her upspeak — if anything, I felt good about the fact that I’d given her some direct and honest feedback, which can be difficult to pull off —  and we concluded the conversation with little fanfare.

*    *    *

Much later, I was telling my friend Colin about the feedback I’d given Victoria, and he was surprised and horrified, much like I’d been at first to Sandberg’s comment.

We’d been discussing a recent This American Life episode (#545, “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say”), which discusses the disproportionate number of listener complaints they get about the voices of their female producers. The policing of women’s voices was something that had gotten a lot of recent coverage, and Colin and I were both interested in the topic. Disturbingly, Colin didn’t see the feedback that I’d given to Victoria about her voice as fundamentally different than the (sexist) complaints This American Life was fielding about their female producers.

He likened what I’d done to a famous scene in the first episode of Mad Men. It’s Peggy’s first day of work and her boss, Joan, is giving her an orientation which she concludes with some completely sincere, horrifying advice: “Go home, take a paper bag, and cut some eyeholes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.” The viewer knows that Joan genuinely thinks she is being helpful to Peggy, but by today’s standards this comment is wildly inappropriate.

I was startled by this comparison. I wasn’t sure if what I’d said to Victoria about upspeak was the same thing as what Joan had said to Peggy, or what listeners of This American Life had complained about, but Colin’s comment made me feel unsettled. Was I participating in the sexist “policing” of another woman’s voice?

*    *    *

According to Kim Scott, whose story about getting very direct feedback from Sheryl Sandberg started this piece, giving, receiving, and encouraging guidance is the “single most important thing a boss can do.” This feels right to me instinctively and is supported by my experience. But Scott explains that there is another essential component:  the manager and the person she’s giving feedback to must have a strong foundation of respect and trust to really be effective.

“Part of the reason Sheryl was able to say to me so bluntly, ‘You sounded stupid,’” she wrote, “was that I knew that she cared personally about me. She had done a thousand things that showed me that.” From inviting recent Scott (who had moved for the job) to join her book group, to encouraging her to take time off when a family member was sick, Sandberg didn’t just invest in her professionally, but showed she truly cared about her. I certainly respected and liked Victoria, and my feedback was in the spirit trying to help her get better at her job and in her career going forward. But I can’t say confidently that she felt I cared personally about her.

Scott’s idea that we cultivate deep trust and directness sounds great, but it is difficult to achieve. Scott and Sandberg seemed like they had the holy grail of manager-employee relationship, infused with respect, trust, and value. My experience with Victoria, which is perhaps more typical in the sense that our relationship was good, but not rock solid, illustrates that many work interactions inhabit a vast and murky middle ground. Was I sexist and judgmental? I’m still thinking about that. Did I have the basis of trust? That’s something as a boss I’d like focus on so that I can feel it intuitively and confidently. With Victoria, I don’t think I did.


Image: Alcoa Aluminum’s bottle caps open “without a knife blade, a bottle opener, or even a husband” (1953)


  1. Ann

    This can be tricky. Supervisors are supposed to provide guidance that will help their team members be more effective in their jobs. Upspeak *does* make the speaker sound unsure. Conveying confidence in oneself is often critical to the success of an employee, especially in positions where clients pay you to advise them. As a female supervisor, I have given the same feedback to a female team member in the past. Where it gets tricky is here: would one identify the same (or similar) issue and give the same feedback to a male employee if it applies? If you can answer yes, then I don’t think you are discriminating…

    • leda

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Ann. I don’t think I’d give the same feedback to a man, mostly because I don’t think upspeak is a common thing for men to use. That’s what worries me – I agree that is makes the speaker sound unsure. But if it’s a speech pattern that is largely female, than it’s necessarily only being pointed out to women. The confusion continues!

  2. Hana Marritz

    Sheryl should never have used the word stupid. she should have been more of a “teacher”, that is, to educate ( latin word for “to lead”) her to see what she was doing by using um so much. In other words a boss is should be a teacher who helps someone to see how they can be more effective and powerful. using disparaging words is destructive and not helpful

    I do not find what you said to Victoria to be in that category at all. it sounded to me that Scott was way off the mark. I don’t think a work relationship needs to be a deeply caring – more like a teacher than a personal friend. in that sense it is caring, but not sticky with personal strings.

    The thing to do with Victoria is to ask her if your criticism was helpful to her, or if she felt put down by it. that way you air the issue and can make any adjustments that let her know you are a caring for her career and success.

    • leda

      I take your point. The expectation that your supervisor sincerely cares about you as a person is not going to be viable in many workplaces. And if I still worked with Victoria, I think suggesting that I check in and see how she felt about that feedback would be a good way to move forward.

  3. harper

    Maybe one way of looking at this, albeit from a second-level linguistic/labeling perspective, is to re-examine whether the verb “policing” truly applies to this interaction.

    I understand we’re in the realm of micro-aggressions here (and I want to make clear that I believe micro-aggressions are real, and I know they are wielded far more often and far more damagingly against women and people of color), but perhaps your actions here are more, well… micro than aggressive? To be honest, when I reread the 1 sentence you’re worried about, it feels fine, even constructive, to me.

    “Policing” implies elements of criminality, violence, even state-sponsored trial and punishment. It may be that you didn’t handle this situation perfectly, as a boss or a fellow woman-in-the-workplace, but “policing” just feels like too harsh a verb for what’s actually gone on here.

    • leda

      I hear you and agree. I sometimes have seen the word “policing” used to describe situations like the one I was in, but certainly I wasn’t trying to scold, harm, or be harsh in any way. On a related note, I both recognize (as you do) that microaggressions are real, and feel nervous about where the line is between honesty/candor and something that may offend. A topic for another post perhaps.

  4. Paula

    I think it was absolutely appropriate. You weren’t insulting, you were constructive. How we present ourselves *matters* – and there’s a vast difference between the “critically assess your naked body in the mirror to identify your assets” and “please don’t sound like you aren’t certain where you went to grad school.”

    I am a staunch feminist, but I don’t go in for bimbo feminism, to be blunt. Watch the movie “In a World.” Upspeak and vocal fry are not just “that’s how I talk” … they are cultivated affectations which, if not borne of immaturity and insecurity, certainly convey that impression. Talk like grownups, ladies. Talk like you expect to be taken seriously. Take yourselves seriously.

    • leda

      I understand this perspective… and obviously (as the story illustrates), my feeling about upspeak is that it doesn’t make you sound confident or adult. But. Is there value too in trying to move away from the form/style of the way someone expresses thought and toward the content and what it is really expressing?

      • Paula

        Yes, of course, content is king. If someone came up to me on the street and said, with as much upspeak and vocal fry as humanly possible, that they’d just been mugged, I wouldn’t refuse to help them. However, if someone sends me a CV with a bunch of typos in it, I am probably not going to hire them unless I already know how brilliant and valuable an employee they will be (and even so, I will tell them to correct it if they care what other people think of them).

        I do not go in for shrugs and “that’s just the way I am,” not on subjects such as this. If you want to live in the world and interact with other people, you need to accept that your behavior will influence others’ opinions. And, given that the deck is still stacked against women in the workplace, trying not to sound like an insecure little girl strikes me as a good idea. You don’t have to pretend you’re a dude. Just pretend to be an adult, like the rest of us are all secretly doing!

  5. Amanda L.

    I found this piece interesting because there was a time in my life when my voice would switch to a higher register during any kind of tense interaction with any given supervisor. I would notice the change but would usually have trouble regaining control of my tone before the interaction ended. Thankfully, I never received feedback on the issue, as it was rooted in childhood trauma and felt like a deeply personal problem.

    While the upspeak described in the essay doesn’t exactly match my former habit, and while I wouldn’t dare make assumptions about a person’s childhood based on a handful of adjectives, I think it’s important to note that affectations in general are the end products of sustained coercion, be it coercion by a sick parent or coercion by a sick society.

    It sounds like your heart was in the right place, but you were talking to a woman about her unconscious survival tactic as if it were a cause and not a symptom, as if it could be approached outside of the context of violence. And I can’t say that I would ever welcome the larger, deeper conversation during a performance review. But after work, over a beer, as equals and true friends? Absolutely.

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