The power of style: How speech and fashion impact gender equality

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The power of communication isn’t as simple as saying what you mean. How we talk and listen to each other is deeply influenced by our social conditioning, our childhood, and cultural experiences. Power and influence are associated with who gets heard, and confidence is evaluated by how we express ourselves. And as many women know all too well, gender equality in the workplace is not just limited to pay. 

Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor at Georgetown University, says the art of conversation is learned in childhood: boys who tell other boys what to do are seen as leaders, whereas a girl who tells other girls what to do is perceived as bossy and often ostracized. As a society, we are all conditioned to hear confidence with certain patterns of speech: Women who are quiet or ask a lot of questions, for example, are frequently dismissed as lacking in knowledge. Are we relying on the wrong metrics to evaluate competence? 

Later, we’ll hear from author and poet Marguerite Pigeon about how style, clothing, and appearance factor into gendered perception and experience in the workplace. Far from frivolous, fashion and outward appearance are directly related to confidence and success. From heels to flats, jackets and shoulder pads, we explore how women throughout history have used style to push boundaries, altering their appearance to reflect power and confidence.

Author and poet Marguerite Pigeon. Photo courtesy of Andrew Querner, 2021

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks to Tannen and Pigeon to find out more. 

“Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work” by Deborah Tannen. Photo by Jonathan Timmes.




Andrea Brody