Undermining Our Own Authority by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“I’ll be the first to admit that it can be difficult, if not exhausting, for women professionals to discern how to be strong and assertive (and thus be taken seriously) without coming across as arrogant or b*tchy. But there is indeed room for play between over-deference and cockiness, and the ability to code-switch while in formal settings would be a good step in the right direction for many of us.”

Whatever your take is on Madonna’s feminist bona fides, she was definitely on to something in her 2001 hit “What it Feels Like For a Girl.”  Madonna sang about the tremendous pressures females of all ages face to conform to gendered norms of physical appearance and demeanor. I want to use her lyrics to discuss some ways I have seen young women in academe subtly undermine their own authority.

To cut to the chase: female students and junior scholars have a greater tendency than their male counterparts to engage in self-sabotaging patterns of speech, writing, and body language. I say these things both as someone who has worked with undergraduate and graduate students for the past 8 years and as someone who has had (and still has) to train herself out of certain “bad habits.”

Many of us have been conditioned under mainstream conventions of femininity to self-efface, remain deferential toward men, and project an aura of a soft and inviting presence. The problem in academic settings is that these “ladylike” behaviors lead others to see us as insecure, under-confident, and unqualified.

“When you open up your mouth to speak / Could you be a little weak?” (Madonna)

Let’s start with public speaking. While there are several pitfalls to avoid, the one I’ll focus on here is very common: the tendency among women (and also, anecdotally, among “out” gay men who have affected speech) to end their declarative sentences with an upward lilt or inflection, effectively transforming their statements into questions.

What I mean is the following. Instead of hearing this:

“Today, I’m gong to talk about Kierkegaard. I’m going to argue that standard interpretations of his Fear and Trembling are mistaken.”

I effectively hear this:

“Today, I’m going to talk about Kierkegaard?  I’m going to argue that standard interpretations of his Fear and Trembling are mistaken?”

To state the obvious, the speaker in the second set of sentences projects uncertainty, tentativeness, and a desire to please others. Those might be good things if the speaker is an already established senior scholar or is otherwise speaking in a context where s/he is clearly the one with more power or status (e.g., a veteran teacher to students), since the upwards lilt “works against type” in suggesting openness and an accommodating posture.

But the upwards inflection generally won’t help those students or scholars who are trying to establish themselves as credible, competent, and authoritative. Embodiment, in short, counts. Speakers who appear younger or smaller in size than those in the audience or those who present themselves as über-feminine in appearance or demeanor should be extra careful about their inflection, lest they feed into existing stereotypes of their submissiveness or lack of seriousness.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m neither saying that women should be trained to “speak like men,” nor that there is no space for hesitation or vulnerability in academe. I’ll be the first to admit that it can be difficult, if not exhausting, for women professionals to discern how to be strong and assertive (and thus be taken seriously) without coming across as arrogant or b*tchy. But there is indeed room for play between over-deference and cockiness, and the ability to code-switch while in formal settings would be a good step in the right direction for many of us.

(As an aside that I won’t flesh out here, I mapped out in my head the above points last Sunday in church while watching an ASL interpreter. That led me to wonder if there were comparable gendered patterns of communicating through sign language among the deaf community as well).

“When you’re trying hard to be your best / Could you be a little less?” (Madonna)

Let’s now move onto writing style. Students who submit philosophical or argumentative essays for my classes know that they will be evaluated not so much on the conclusion they reach, but on their justification for it (e.g., the adequacy of their textual support or analysis). What I often see among my students—especially, but not exclusively among young women—is that they weaken their claims with unnecessary qualifiers at the beginning of their sentences (viz., “In my opinion….”, “I believe….”, “As I see it….”, “From what I could gather….”)

Notice the difference between these two sentences:

Sentence 1: “Neighbor-love is the most important norm for Christians because of X, Y, and Z.”

Sentence 2: “I think that neighbor-love is the most important norm for Christians because of X, Y, and Z.”

Not only is the “I think” of the second sentence obvious, but the use of a softening or hedging qualifier suggests insecurity on the part of the author to allow the argumentation to stand on its own. It’s as if the writer wants the reader to minimize her findings (i.e., no one in the world but her would have come to that conclusion and, more importantly, the conclusion is unsubstantiated).

Now, I don’t mean to imply that there is never an appropriate time to qualify one’s points. Two exceptions come immediately to mind:

(1) Qualifiers that appropriately signal cases where the writer has not provided sufficient evidence to justify a particular claim but wants to make it anyway (e.g., “While the nature vs. nurture question may never be conclusively resolved, I think that….”

 (2) Qualifiers that are intended to connect the writer’s unique social location to the claim being made (e.g., “As a Californian, second generation Taiwanese American, and progressive Christian, I am appalled that….”)

But bracketing these (and possibly other) exceptions, writers should avoid using these self-undermining qualifiers when composing argumentative essays because their addition weakens the overall tone of their work.

Body Language

Since I am running out of space to address the issue of body language properly, I will close by quoting Dr. Karen Kelsky of the “Professor Is In” blogsite.  The following passage is taken from her helpful post entitled “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)”:

“And lastly, the handshake. Oh my god, the handshake. If you do nothing else from this post, please, I beg you, do this. Get up from your computer, go find a human, and shake their hand. Shake it firmly. Really squeeze!  Outstretch your arm, grip their hand with all your fingers and thumb, look them firmly in the eye, smile in a friendly, open way, and give that hand a nice, firm shake. Repeat. Do this until it’s second nature. If it doesn’t feel right or you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, find an alpha male in your department, and ask him to teach you. Seriously, grad students, butch it up.”

Good advice for all of us.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on a second book manuscript on Asian American Christian Ethics. Read more about her work on her website.

Categories: Academy, Women and Scholarship, Women and Work, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Thank you. I want to hand this out to all women entering graduate school. I just finished my graduation program and I was astounded by how many women couldn’t bring themselves to make a statement without qualifying it.


  2. As a peer tutor in the CST writing center I see the tendency for women to use “I think” and remember that you told us this two years ago. So I encourage students to own their work. Sometimes I will, in fun, but also meaning it seriously, bang my fist on the table when I say, “own it.” A student’s eyes will light up if I suggest that in her own statement of what she holds to be true, she use a term of attribution we use for other scholars like, hold, assert, or argue. I claim that what she says is important and we not only want to hear it, we need to hear it!


  3. Great advice!

    Over the last few years, I have consciously worked on my inflection by not ending my statements with that upward tilt so much. I think I particularly learned the importance of this when I was teaching high school. There’s a world of difference between the teacher saying, “Stop the chatting. Time to focus up here.” and “Stop the chatting? Time to focus up here?” Students can definitely tell the difference.

    One point I have not worked on as much is avoiding qualifiers like ‘in my experience’ or ‘it seems to me.’ I think that’s because in blog writing, I’ve often found it a powerful defensive mechanism to use phrases like this. For instance, i might say in a post, ” my experience with this doctrine is that it has harmed my sense of a healthy and whole self.” By stating things as my personal experience, or my feelings, or my thoughts, people who would like to combat me and smash me down are left without much of a platform. They can’t argue as easily that I’m wrong — because i’m speaking from my own experience and feelings, and those can’t be easily argued away. I’ve found that using such phrases opens up the possibilities of empathy and dialogue in ways that definitive impersonal third person language does not.

    That said, in an academic setting, i can see the importance of minimizing those qualifiers. ‘Empathy and dialogue’ is not the name of the game when you want to make it as an academic, so learning how to confidently make strong unqualified statements is important.


  4. Caroline – good for you to notice the difference in genres between blogs and academic, “argumentative essay” writing and also that the “in my experience…” “I feel” qualifiers work (among other things) to immunize the speaker from critique.

    Notice the difference:

    sentence 1: “That comment was racist.”
    sentence 2: “I feel like that comment was racist.”

    Sentence 2 is now all about “my feelings;” and while the content of feelings can be critiqued (“you shouldn’t get so angry at such a small thing”), the fact that one has had those feelings cannot. But sentence 1 shifts the focus to the comment itself, making the comment (and not one’s feelings about it) the subject of analysis. So yes, it is strategically safer (and more empathy-building) to focus on personal reactions; but in cases where you want your claims to NOT just “be about you” but also (or even more importantly) be about the claims themselves (the doctrines), might I encourage you to grow in confidence (while of course, proceeding with caution) to drop those modifiers?


    • I think it’s certainly good advice to minimize those modifiers in expository papers, and I appreciate the way you illustrate how they shift the focus from the statement itself. Yet a part of me wants to defend the power of those modifiers. (Not that you’re necessarily disagreeing with me — i’m just working this out in my mind.) I’m thinking of Audre Lorde’s essay questioning lesbian separatism by discussing her own experiences with raising her son. She uses first person and personal experience throughout, yet still delivers a potent critique. So I’m tempted to think that there is some space to voice powerful claims even in the first person. And that use of first person opens up conversation in a way that definitive third person statements don’t. So i think a lot of this depends on the project and the forum, as you say.

      But then again, maybe there’s a substantial difference between using those first person qualifiers and using first person experiences to illustrate a claim. I’ve noticed quite a few of our feminist authors use personal experience as illustrations in their articles/books. As you can see, I’m trying to work this out even as i type my comment…


      • Caroline – you’ve hit it on the head! There is a difference in writing style when personal experience IS the claim and you are right that feminists (and others, of course) are known to valorize the role of personal experience in ethical decision-making. But in many cases, the claim is not principally about you — it’s about defending a certain position, advancing a certain reading of a text, or showing the weaknesses or strengths of a certain platform — and the point is to persuade the reader of your argument’s validity. In those cases, after you’ve provided sufficient justification for your view, the “I think” not only adds nothing substantial to your claim (because it is redundant – of course you think that, since the thinker is the writer), but it actually weakens the claim for the reasons previously described. The trick, as you noted in your previous post, is to recognize that different writing styles are appropriate for different genres. :)


  5. So, so true. I know I add the question mark to the end of sentences, and am working to rid myself of that trait. Two add’l important notes: (1) Many women – present company included – use caveat words before they speak (“I don’t know this subject entirely but I think…) – stop that!, and (2) we need to own our gifts more generally. When I began to ‘find’ my preaching style, it turned out to much more emphatic and solid than I would ever have anticipated. I hesitated to own those gifts. “What is I was too full of myself” Bah humbug! If we’re not going to live in Daly’s separate spaces then we need to find ways to fully own our presence in our shared world. Thanks Dr. Kao, for a great reminder and post.


    • Lara – totally agreed! What I wrote about was only the tip of the iceberg. Women (in business meetings or any kind of meetings) do tend to lead with phrases like the one you mentioned – “You probably have already thought of this, but…” “This probably won’t work, but…” “I don’t think this is feasible, but…” This happens from YEARS of conditioning, so it’s only appropriate that it’s going to take real work to train ourselves out of it! Preach on!


  6. I don’t have a lilt in my voice, but i did find your point on a voice that speaks academic confidence to be entirely applicable to me. Believing that i was showing intellectual humility, what i really lacked was the confidence to take a stand on my own ideas in light of the many who have thought through them before me. But regarding the last point, i i make no effort to “really squeeze” and read nothing into “firm” handshakes. I am old enough to have know confident people with gentle handshakes, and some with esteem issues who tried to mangle my hand in a vice grip hand in a silly attempt to compensate for their insecurities through a (failed) attempt at intimidating strength. I think (“i think”- sigh) that, more important than consciously molding our behavior to adapt to those who read too much into it and presume to know our character based on it, energy needs to be put towards educating those who assume that they can define us based on such arbitrary criteria.


    • Jonathan: Thanks for responding. Re: firm handshakes, a friend of mine from my college days who went the business school route told me once that the people in his world regularly check out each other’s watches and general grooming when they shake hands (thus the rise of men’s manicures among the business elite). That world is totally foreign to me (thank God). For academics, I wouldn’t advise investing in Rolex or Tag Heuer watches just to “keep up.”

      So, while I’m not advocating for the overly aggressive, silverback-type handshake (of the kind you describe), I have been annoyed at the type of handshake that is not a shake at all –the cold, clammy hand that just “sits there” doing nothing (leaving the other party the responsibility of doing “all of the work.”) Gentle handshake is fine, but for goodness sake, please actually SHAKE my hand! :)



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