Gender, power and political speech. Women and language in the 2015 UK General Election (Deborah Cameron & Sylvia Shaw)

4 minutes to read
Piia Varis
4.5 out of 5 stars

In Gender, Power and Political Speech, Deborah Cameron and Sylvia Shaw examine how female politicians used language in the context of the 2015 British General Election, and whether their language use differed from that of male politicians'. They also study the reception and media representation of their performances, all in the context of the 'different voice' ideology.

The 'different voice' ideology relies on a 'two cultures' model of distinct 'male' and 'female' communication styles. In practice, this ideology refers to widely accepted propositions such as "women prefer cooperative and supportive interaction to aggressive argument, and are less interested in point-scoring and self-promotion than in displaying empathy and building rapport." (p. 7)

The idea that women and men communicate in ways fundamentally different from each other is a popular one, despite research suggesting otherwise. As Cameron and Shaw point out, in its popularised forms, "the 'different voice' ideology has become familar to a mass audience: for many people, it has attained the status of self-evident common sense." (p. 6) This is perhaps no surprise, given how much for instance popular self-help discourse there is perpetuating this understanding (just think of bestsellers such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus). 

While reading some of the popular self-help and media discourse on the supposed differences between women and men in how they communicate, and the assumed difficulties in getting one's message across to the 'other' gender, it seems amazing how people manage to get anything done and be understood - not only in politics but in other spheres of life as well. In the meanwhile, based on their analysis of the British election debates, Cameron and Shaw did not find "clear-cut, and clearly gender-based, differences" (p. 133) between the men and women participating. They did, however, find that "the 'different voice ideology remains a powerful influence on the representation of women in politics" (p. 133).

Women seen as deviating from the kind of behaviour prescribed by the ideology can be judged as 'unnatural' or 'unfeminine'

The 'different voice' ideology of course potentially has detrimental consequences in real-life communication; women seen as deviating from the kind of behaviour prescribed by the ideology can be judged as 'unnatural' or 'unfeminine'. Reviewing existing research, Cameron and Shaw point out that "In addition to lacking confidence in their own ability to speak with authority, women may actively avoid speaking out in public because of the risk that engaging in normatively 'masculine' behaviour will have adverse social consequences. Research confirms what many women have learnt from experience - that overt displays of authority by women prompt others to judge them negatively on measures of both femininity and likeability" (p. 10).

As Cameron wrote in her blog earlier, "research suggests that it is harder for women to combine authority with likeability. If they score well on one, they'll do badly on the other." If this sounds familiar from a not-so-distant past, it might be that you've encountered some of the fairly large amount of media coverage in 2016 on just how 'unlikeable' Hillary Clinton is. Donald Trump memorably called her in the final 2016 presidential debate 'such a nasty woman', and Barack Obama, somewhat more generously, during the 2008 presidential campaign referred to Clinton as 'likeable enough'. Many other weary old stereotypes were also rehearsed during the 2016 elections: Clinton was criticised for not smiling enough, and she also in fact responded to comments on her lack of smiling. Gendered (media) discourse on the candidates' communication styles was very much part of the 2016 election in other ways, too: Donald Trump was seen to be talking 'like a woman', and Bernie Sanders raising his voice and shouting was taken as a sign of passion, while Hillary Clinton doing the same was seen as 'shrill' - an enduring stereotypical way of characterising female communication.

The discourse around the 2016 presidential elections is only one example illustrating why there seems to be not only room but a continuing urgent demand for the kind of research Deborah Cameron and Sylvia Shaw do on gender, language and communication, and it is only to be hoped that their research finds a broad readership. Gender, Power and Political Speech is indeed not only important but enjoyable reading, and provides a convincing analysis and draws conclusions supported by detailed analyses of transcripts from the televised election debates, as well as media discourse about the politicians. Although the book focuses on the British General Elections, it is accessible also for those without much knowledge about British politics, and the reader will find that the gendered expectations regarding communication are familiar from other contexts, too. Indeed, it will give the reader tools for interpreting for instance what went on in the 2016 US presidential elections.  

The book is written by scholars of language, but is recommended reading for all

The only shortcoming I can think of is that I thought that the book was too short; it is always a delight to read careful and insightful analysis such as the one put forward by Cameron and Shaw. It would've been particularly interesting to read more about the media coverage of politicians, as well as the highly successful speech style of the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon, which Cameron and Shaw briefly give more attention to in the conclusion. 

The book is written by scholars of language, but is recommended reading not only for the more linguistically minded. If you won't read the book, do at least read Deborah Cameron's excellent blog where she discusses the intricacies of gender and language. Both the book and Cameron's blog serve to bring some realism into the ways in which we see gender and language use, and debunk gendered assumptions. This is very welcome, as much of popular (media) discourse, as well as self-help literature and 'folk wisdom' regarding communication have no basis in what women and men actually do, while potentially influencing the behaviour and perception of speakers in negative ways. Gender, Power and Political Speech is useful in countering such unfounded understandings and expectations - as Cameron has stated in a blog post on 'how to write a bullshit article about women's language'"Bullshit may endure, but it doesn't have to be endured."