Gender Bias Over the Phone
I was determined to start this year on solid footing. As a freelancer going back to school it was important for me to stay on top of my schedule. So, I chose my classes and ensured my aid package well before the semester began. Then, at the last minute, all my funding was placed on hold. This was due to a new policy at New York University that required an additional loan literacy test; which, try as I may, I was unable to access through the link provided to me.
The solution seemed simple, I would call the office, explain, and be sent a functional link. Unfortunately, getting this new link proved more difficult than I’d imagined.
I spent the last three weeks before classes began in a frenzy of redirected phone calls, attempting to navigate the issue. Every call went more or less the same. I’d explain my issue, fully and carefully, only to be told the same thing over and over again:
We are sorry to hear you’re experiencing difficulty, however it’s become clear that the issue is due to your own error. Maybe try a new computer?
Every single interaction ended in the person on the other line assuming that I was the issue.
I felt helpless. Then, as I began receiving emails from the bursar’s office stating that I was to be de-enrolled from the classes that I’d fought to secure, I got mad. In my last conversation with the financial aid office I said enough. I demanded that the person assisting me transfer the call to someone better equipped, or more motivated, to help me.
I was then connected to an academic counselor who heard me out and quickly emailed me a functional link that allowed me to resolve the issue. Three minutes later I’d finished the literacy test and, just like that, an issue that had threatened to suspend my degree by a full semester disappeared.
The swell of relief that washed over me was immediately overcome by a wave of guilt and confusion. Why had this process been so difficult? Had I been too plaintive? Or unclear? What had made it so easy for all these people to dismiss me so thoroughly? Why was it only when after I lost my temper that someone came to my aid?
I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t about what I had said, but who they’d heard on the other side of the phone. I was curious about what assumptions they might have been operating on while talking to me, and how inequitable assumptions about women could effect the standards of service and care we are provided throughout our lives.
Linguistic style is “a set of culturally learned signals by which we not only communicate what we mean but also interpret others’ meaning and evaluate one another as people”(Tannen, 1995). Everyone has a linguistic style, which is defined by the society they were born into, and its expectations. We communicate differently based on a variety of factors; like socioeconomic status, culture, and gender.
We cannot help but respond to these verbal cues, they are hard-wired into us. The issue isn’t that people communicate differently based on their varied experiences, or even that we experience instant reactions to the way people sound. The issue is how that impacts the way some are provided services, care, and access.
Research shows that lower voices are perceived to be more authoritative and garner more respect than higher voices (Tsantani, 2019). One of the reasons for this is that men occupy a dominant role in our society (Weber).
From a very young age we are taught to respond to men’s voices with action, and to take the concerns of men seriously. When women speak we are more likely to ignore their concerns, to view their words as inconsequential. Like background noise. This affects women across the board in service and career situations.
We are socialized to be accommodating and differential to the feelings of others, particularly men. Women, in conversation, will often phrase a statement as a question, in order to appear less demanding. The effect of which is that they are often interpreted by listeners as confused or uncertain. Women might also take more frequent pauses to listen than a man would; which can be interpreted as nervousness or an even an emotional response.
Although these communication decisions might have been made in an effort to insure clarity and leave room for the other to contribute, individuals on the other end of the phone are prone to making incorrect assumptions merely because they identify the voice on the other end as female.
Even when vocal affects are not present, and a woman is talking clearly, slowly, and confidently, those. hearing a feminine identified voice are still prone to making unfair assumptions. The effect of this is that the majority of women seeking professional aid or customer service receive less effective service. Women are overwhelmingly less pleased with professional phone interactions than men (Consumer Reports, 2011). Men get adequate service, whereas women get doubted and interrogated into dropping the call.
Horrifyingly, a great deal of women don’t feel even comfortable going into investment situations, like buying cars or homes, without bringing along men to garner legitimacy in those spaces. This is not a baseless act. Women are frequently charged more when they seek to purchase cars, homes, or even insurance (Ayres, 2005).
We can all recall the common tropes about women who demand to be heard. Those nagging “Can I speak to your manager?” types who are portrayed as terse and uncompromising. I personally have encountered these women often in past service jobs and, while I make no excuses for rude behavior, we should make an effort to consider the conditions that made them that way in the first place. Why do these women always doubt that they’re receiving quality service? Perhaps it’s because they’ve received enough bad service that, at this point, they expect to be dismissed and begin each interaction on the defensive.
Then we should ask ourselves why there’s no corresponding trope about nagging and rude male customers, when clearly an abundance of them.
Women in our society are trained to speak in a manner that is centered around listening, and making space. Men are taught to speak in order to be heard. They speak slower, with less frequent pauses, and are less likely to stop talking in the middle of a thought to allow another person to interject. Men take the time and space to complete their thoughts. This is perceived as confidence, and strength. There’s a corresponding assumption that male speakers are more likely to know what they are talking about.
Conversely, women are presumed to be emotional and easily manipulated consumers; no matter what it is they are consuming.
During my calls to the school I found myself giving detailed explanations of the situation to individuals who were less focused on helping me solve the issue then they were on mediating whatever emotions they believed I was experiencing. Despite the information I volunteered they simply assumed that the issue was “woman panicking” and sent me on my way with their sympathy alone.
My words weren’t being responded to, my gender was.
If I had been a man handling that conversation the exact same way, I wouldn’t have been patronized. My concerns would have been taken at face value and perhaps one of the many people I talked to would have attempted to try using my broken link and see for themselves the issue I was experiencing (Tannen).
The bias that a voice like mine encounters in critical moments is grounded in inequitable gendered norms about women. Each of these encounters constitutes a micro-aggression, and those accumulate into a huge pressure that exerts itself across the span of a woman’s life, with myriad consequences.
The fact that my voice is coded as female means that people assume a few things about me personally, and the tenor of the interaction, before they have invested much, if any time, trying to ascertain my needs in the conversation. Women shouldn’t have to scream in order to be heard. Nobody should. The amount of time a woman spends fighting to be heard amounts to longer time spent to graduate, to buy a home, to launch her career, to live her life fully and healthily (McIntyre, 1998).
What I experienced in this one instance with New York University is a very small, amount of the gendered discrimination that I have experienced in my life, and a negligible amount compared to what other women around the world struggle through.
As stated in the Four Sociological Traditions “social thought develops only if carried out by a community that preserves earlier contributions and builds on them”(Collins). So it’s time we start taking women seriously, and creating a new environment that is fair and equitable for all gender expressions.
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