Gender and Performance Anxiety (published in Baxter j ed. Speaking Out: The Female Voice in Public Contexts, Palgrave, Basingstoke) 2006 Sara Mills Abstract

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Gender and Performance Anxiety

(published in Baxter J ed. Speaking Out: The Female Voice in Public Contexts, Palgrave, Basingstoke) 2006

Sara Mills
Stage fright or performance anxiety is often considered to be something which women are more likely to experience than men when giving presentations or papers at conferences or within the business environment. Because it is only within the last few generations that it has become commonplace for women to speak in the public sphere authoritatively, it is considered that the discursive rules which are assumed to be operating in the public sphere are necessarily masculine or at least more in line with stereotypically masculine forms of speech. It is the contention of this essay that particular types of gender identity and gender preconceptions about the masculinist nature of speaking in the public sphere may be activated or challenged in the process of giving papers. Thus, I aim to demonstrate here that women do not necessarily suffer from stage fright more than men; many women, particularly older women, do not suffer from it at all. But those who do, may have internalised some sense of the type of discourse appropriate to such a context and consider themselves, for a range of reasons, not to be able to easily draw on this masculine discourse. They may also have posited that they have a marginal or problematic position in relation to the institution. Gender, because of its indexical relationship with public speaking and the public sphere, may be one of the factors which lead people to experience difficulty in speaking to an audience, but it is certainly not the only factor. There are a wide range of factors which contribute to someone assessing themselves as in a marginal position, such as age, the way they assess their own personality or character and whether they consider this to be open to change, their assessment of their level of expertise in relation to the audience and so on. I would argue that what seems to play an important role in terms of performance anxiety is the degree to which the individual has internalised or resisted stereotypical views of the gendered nature of public sphere and public speaking. In order to test out these ideas, I sent out a questionnaire to academics to gauge what they felt contributed to performance anxiety.
Key words

Stage fright; performance anxiety; gender; stereotype

This essay aims to analyse the factors which lead to some women experiencing `stage fright’ when speaking in public, particularly in the presentation of papers at academic conferences. The impetus for this paper was an incident which I observed at an academic conference, where a female colleague who is generally very confident, sometimes to the point of being overbearing, gave a paper to a small group of feminist theorists. From being initially confident, she gradually became more and more incoherent, to the point that she seemed unable to read her notes and became increasingly unable to pronounce the title of her paper which was the focus of much of her extempore introduction. She eventually recovered her composure, but after the paper several colleagues discussed with me their own experiences of stage fright and the contexts where this was most likely to occur. From this discussion and from subsequent discussions with other female academics, it seemed clear to me that performance anxiety is the result of an assessment of the situation (often a mistaken assessment of the situation) and not some inbuilt weakness or failure on the part of the individual, although that is often how it is experienced by the individual. Most of the people I discussed this with stated that they feared that their level of expertise was less than members of the audience and that even when they had prepared well, they did not feel that they could talk authoritatively at a conference. Some of the women with whom I discussed this were fairly senior within their universities and were researchers with international reputations in their field. Furthermore, another female colleague discussed with me the fact that at one particular conference she had experienced quite a hostile response to a paper that she had given - male colleagues had aggressively asked her questions at the end of her paper in a way which she felt aimed not only to try to destroy her argument, but also to challenge her as an individual. She felt personally undermined by the experience, and her confidence was so shaken by the experience that she subsequently felt very uneasy about giving papers at all and tended to avoid public speaking of any kind. These two anecdotes seemed to crystallise for me the way that an individual's projections about an audience's response conditions the way that one performs in a particular context. It seemed to me that gender played a role in this complex dialogic process and it is the complexities of the role of gender at an indexical and at a stereotypical level which form the main focus of this essay (Bakhtin/Volosinov 1973).
New Models of Gender

In order to analyse the role of gender in performance anxiety, it is necessary to consider the recent theoretical advances in feminist linguistics which have made for changes in the way that gender is conceptualised. Rather than analysing males and females as separate groups, theorists have moved away from making sweeping generalisations about the way that all women speak in public. Instead, more `local' ways of looking at gender and a less monolithic model of what `women' do in language has been developed (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003; Holmes and Meyerhoff, 2003; Baxter, 2003). Thus, what feminist linguists are more concerned with now is the way that women and men construct their gender identities within particular contexts. Thus, as Kendall demonstrates, one person may assume a range of different gendered roles, depending on the context of interaction and their assumptions about what is appropriate in that context (Kendall, 2003). What has also become a focus of attention in recent feminist linguistics is seeing gender less as pre-existing interaction, but as worked out or oriented to within interaction. This process of working out gender is informed less by the sex of interactants, but by the way that particular styles of speech or environments are themselves gendered by interactants or groups /society as a whole. For example, Freed (1996) suggests that certain styles of self-revelatory talk between friends are often coded by interactants as feminine and this may influence their assessment of what they consider appropriate behaviour. Thus, gender is not seen as coterminous with sex, but as a type of `coding’ of styles, practices and contexts which individuals may draw on or resist in the course of their day to day interactions; in the process of negotiating with these styles, individuals construct their gendered identities.

Instead of viewing gender identity as fixed, pre-existing interaction and as an attribute which in some ways `belongs' to the individual, feminist linguists, drawing on Judith Butler’s work, have concentrated on the performativity of gender identity (Butler, 1990; 1993). Butler suggests that `the materiality of sex is constructed through a ritualised repetition of norms' (Butler, 1993:x). Thus, gender identity is a repeated performance of the normative behaviour associated with a particular sex. It is therefore more of a process, a constant need to reiterate one's gendered identity, rather than a product which one `owns'. However, Butler is not suggesting that individuals can construct themselves in any way that they choose: `If I were to argue that genders are performative, that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet...donned that gender for the day and then restored the garment to its place at night. Such a wilful and instrumental subject, one who decides on its gender is clearly not its gender from the start and fails to realise its existence is already decided by gender' (Butler, 1993:x). Thus, Butler is arguing that one constructs one's gender identity within contextual and societal norms which predispose the individual to certain types of behaviour. 1 What we need to add to Butler's model of gender is the way that these norms are contested and/or affirmed in interaction. They are not fixed but hypothesised by individuals depending on their assessment of the context (Mills, 2003).
However, whilst there has been a move to more contextualized understandings of the way gender identity is constructed, that does not mean that it is impossible to make generalisations about the way gender works. Many women experience difficulty speaking in public, and this may be partly to do with what is perceived to be allowable for women to do. If we consider that it is only in recent times that women have begun speaking within the public sphere in large numbers, both within the business and the academic context, it is not surprising if many people (both speakers and audiences) within these environments still view speaking in public as masculine.
Masculinity and Public Speaking
There is nothing intrinsically masculine about the public sphere; but it does seem as if it is indirectly gender-indexed, that is, the styles of speech prevalent within the public sphere are indirectly associated with speech styles normally presumed to be masculine. Giving academic papers is part of one's role within an institution as a lecturer; as such it is an activity which is scrutinised by others and which is rule governed, and which may accrue benefit to the individual if they give what is seen as a good performance. In a sense, individuals can accrue some social capital to themselves, in Bourdieu's terms, by performing well and giving effective academic papers (Bourdieu, 1991). Thus, the process of giving academic papers takes place within an environment where power circulates, in that there is a `set of resources and actions which are available to speakers and which can be used more or less successfully depending on who the speakers are and what kind of speech situation they are in' (Thornborrow, 2002: 8). Giving an academic paper is not a simple matter of transmitting evidence or information to an audience; it is also a question of displaying professional competence, claiming expertise for oneself, ranking oneself in relation to others, establishing a place in the hierarchy of the professional body or academic community and, at the same time, it is also a matter of producing and presenting oneself as a particular type of gendered individual. It is thought that to give a competent academic paper, you must show yourself able to speak fluently and confidently without hesitation and nervousness, you must be able to structure an argument, and show that you have done the necessary research and can critique this body of work in order to construct your argument, building on this research but making some claim to originality and authority. You must be able to demonstrate that you can deal with difficult, intellectually challenging subject matter. Therefore, in giving a paper you are proving that you have the authority to assert by positioning yourself within a research field, (demonstrating your familiarity with and mastery of a body of research) and at the same time you are proving that you are authoritative by speaking in an authoritative way, (making claims directly, not using epistemic modality, not hedging on the force of a claim, speaking clearly and not visibly suffering from nerves), that is, speaking in the way that is approved of within this context. In addition, not only do you have to prove that you can read from a script, but you have to show that you can respond in an unscripted way to the `grilling' by certain members of the audience that follows academic papers. And perhaps it is this feedback on the performance or your assessment of what that feedback might be like which informs one's sense of one's position in relation to a research community and one's ability to speak authoritatively. Since it is an assessment of your ability, based on a projection of others' assessments of you, hypothesised stereotypes of gender necessarily play a role (Mills, 2003).
The values and style associated with public speaking are indexically linked with those associated with masculinity. Thus aggression/assertiveness, confidence, verbal skill and verbal play, control, composure, authority are all values which seem both to index successful public speaking and stereotypical masculinity (Johnson and Meinhof, 1997). Even the pitch of the voice is seen to contribute to authoritativeness, since as Kiesling argues, low pitch tends to index indirectly stereotypical masculinity and power (Kiesling, 2003). But it should be stressed that this is a stereotype of what masculine speech is like; many men feel just as uncomfortable with these speech norms as some women do. The stereotype should not be seen as something that all men draw on when constructing themselves as gendered individuals, but neither should it be seen as having no effect whatsoever. As Bourdieu has shown, in a sense, we hypothesise these norms of behaviour, these stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, and even when we do not model our own behaviour on them, they nevertheless inform our judgements about what is appropriate within a particular community of practice and what we feel that we can do and say (Bourdieu, 1991). The meanings and functions of masculinity and femininity will differ from context to context, but individuals will draw on these hypothesised norms, assuming that in some sense the stereotypes exist outside themselves (Mills, 2003). If we assume that `identity is something that people do during the business of everyday interaction...the kinds of identification that are resources for social action are available, and have their nature defined, through systems of meaning which have cultural and ideological histories', then the type of identity which is constructed for women and which women construct for themselves during the process of giving an academic paper is one which is forged out of a history of the association of public speaking with masculine discursive norms (Weatherall and Gallois, 2003: 495). Women therefore have to make choices about how to present themselves: 1) they can adopt the masculinist norms of speaking; 2) they can try to carve out for themselves different, and not necessarily strictly feminine, models of speaking, or 3) they can try to adopt masculine norms and fail through behaving in a stereotypically feminine way - that is, suffering from performance anxiety.2
One's own assessment of how the paper went is often based on one's sense of how others have responded to the paper ( and also how papers that you have given have been received in the past); this notion of a `discourse of approval' seems to play a vital role (Baxter, 2003). Therefore, the questions or informal discussions with individuals at the end are important in constructing a sense of whether we have been successful in presenting our work. Holmes' (1992) research showed an interesting difference in the way that men and women in audiences showed their approval/disapproval of presentations; whilst there seemed to be little difference in her data in the kind or percentage of supportive statements which were made by women and men in audiences, there did seem to be a significant difference in the number and kind of aggressive questions which were asked at the end of papers by members of the audience, with males asking more overtly aggressive questions than women. Keinpointner (1997) argues that such aggressive questioning should be seen as acceptable within an academic context, because only through such behaviour can one advance or refine an argument. However, such questioning may be interpreted as aggressive by some people giving papers rather than as constructive criticism. Thus, rather than the questions being directed to the academic content of your paper, in a spirit of logical, dispassionate interrogation, they are taken as aimed at you as an individual and as undermining your worth or competence.
There is an assumption amongst both people writing about performance anxiety and the academics that I questioned that stage fright is necessarily problematic and that what we need to do is to try and eliminate it, because it displays weakness and lack of confidence. This only holds if we assume that in the public sphere we have to appear invulnerable, and also if we assume that the type of discourse which is appropriate in the public sphere is one which is smooth, seamless and polished. This seems to me a particularly masculinist view of the talk associated with the public sphere and it seems to find its epitome in the speech of the Prime Minister. Fairclough has shown that a great deal of effort is expended on presenting the Prime Minister as invulnerable and as verbally confident, and many have remarked that one of Tony Blair's greatest attributes is his ability to speak well (Fairclough, 2000). Shaw has shown that women MPs seem to be significantly ill at ease with the discursive conventions of the House of Commons, most notably when they have to assert themselves during debates (Shaw, 2002). The speech styles prevalent in the House of Commons tend to be extremely aggressive, but the level of overt aggression is highly ritualised and constrained, and new MPs have to learn both the published regulations governing speech and the unspoken regulations of usage which govern the speech patterns of this particular community of practice. Shaw demonstrates that very often women MPs adhere rigorously to the rules which they assume to be in place in such debates, whereas male MPs often appear more able to circumvent these rules, because they seem more aware of the unwritten usage conventions, i.e. the occasions when it is possible to break the written regulations and conventions. Shaw found that this leads to the women MPs not speaking as much as the male MPs during debates. Thus, within the House of Commons the type of speech style which is seen to be appropriate is one which seems to correlate very closely with a stereotypically masculinist form of speech.
This dominance of masculine discursive norms also seems to hold true in other public contexts, for example, in the courtroom where confident language seems to index certain attributes such as honesty and integrity (Cotterill, 2003). However, Walsh (2001) has shown how the influx of women workers into a range of professions has led to some changes in the types of speech style which are considered appropriate in certain contexts, but she asserts that in fact what seems to have happened is that, rather than more feminine speech styles being introduced, women priests and MPs have seen it as necessary for their own professional identity to take on wholesale the speech norms of the environment in which they work. If they do try to bring more stereotypically feminine norms of caring and co-operation to the workplace, they then constitute, Walsh argues, a kind of less prestigious sphere within the public sphere. McIlhinney (1998), in her analysis of women police officers in Pittsburgh, has shown that women officers state that they have to adopt the masculinist speech norms associated with their particular profession in order to be seen as professional, competent and impartial: she argues that `institutions are ... often gendered in ways that delimit who can properly participate in them and/or how such participation can take place ...Workplaces are gendered both by the numerical predominance of one sex within them and by the cultural interpretation of given types of work which, in conjunction with cultural norms and interpretations of gender, dictate who is understood as best suited for different sorts of employment' (McIlhinney, 1998:309). She goes on to argue that `because masculinity is not referentially or directly marked by behaviours and attitudes but indexically linked to them (in mediated non-exclusive probabalistic ways) female police officers can interpret behaviours that are normatively or frequently understood as simply "the way we need to act to do our job"' (McIlhinney, 1998: 322). Thus, here professionalism and masculine discursive norms are closely correlated.

However, although in the case of Parliament and the police force, it seems as if the discursive norms are fairly static and unchanging, within other areas of the public sphere, there do seem to be changes, because of the appointment of women to positions of power within organisations or because of changes in ethos. For example, within the business environment, it has been shown that workplaces can be more or less masculine or feminine and this can condition the speech-norms which are judged to be appropriate (Holmes and Stubbe, 2003; Holmes and Schnurr, forthcoming). Within more feminine workplaces, more relaxed, feminine speech styles are considered acceptable and, as Holmes and Stubbe (2003) argue, there may a leakage of the social world into the world of work, so that the workplace appears more hospitable to women. 3 However, although there is a tendency for less masculine forms of speech style and comportment in these `feminine’ workplaces, Holmes and Schnurr state that there is no neat division in the styles used, as women and men `seem to draw creatively on a wide range of discursive resources to perform their roles as effective managers in these differently gendered workplace contexts' (Holmes and Stubbe, 2003: 593). In a similar way, Kendall argues that: ` women in positions of institutional authority who linguistically downplay status differences when enacting their authority are not reluctant to exercise authority, nor are they expressing powerlessness; instead they are exercising and constituting their authority by speaking in ways that accomplish work-related goals while maintaining the faces of their interlocutors' (Kendall, 2003: 604). Thus, feminine speech norms here do not necessarily signal powerlessness. Women may simply find that the most effective way for them to operate within a work environment is to use feminine speech norms, because of the way others view women who use seemingly masculine speech.

What all of these analysts fail to examine is the way that feminine or masculine discourse is judged by others. Thimm et al (2003) have shown that competence in the workplace is often associated with males, with females being judged on their friendliness and co-operativeness. If that is the case, then women will be judged negatively if they are using more masculine norms, and this may lead to them finding a particular discursive style ineffective in a particular context; they may then decide to draw on other styles. As Kendall asserts: ` Women and men do not generally choose linguistic options for the purpose of creating masculine and feminine identities; instead, they draw upon gendered linguistic strategies to perform pragmatic and interactional functions of language and thus constitute roles in a gendered way' (Kendall, 2003: 604 ) Within the business environment it is quite clear that a range of speech styles are considered appropriate depending on the norms and ethos of the particular environment, but within the context of the academic paper, there seems to be little room for manoeuvre. At some feminist conferences, a relaxation of the norms of strict masculinist presentation became the norm during the 1980s and 1990s, but it is clear that most papers given now to large audiences follow the conventions of a read-from script paper followed by challenging questioning.
Strong Women Speakers

Much of the literature on stage fright, particularly within the research on this phenomenon within the field of music and performance, does not deal with issues of gender adequately, or if it does, assumes that women are simply more prone to stage fright because of an essential difference between men and women: women being characterised as more nervous and emotional. Here, I take a much more social constructionist viewpoint, arguing that in certain contexts gender does play a role, but that this is mainly due to the fact that elements of the act of speaking in public and claiming expertise in a subject have in the past been coded as masculine; that is, gender indirectly indexes these elements. Gender plays a role when individual speakers assume that they are in some ways transgressing or challenging gender roles because of this masculinising of the context, but this assessment is not always brought into play (thus, some female academics find giving lectures to undergraduates unproblematic, but find giving presentations to peers more difficult).

It is important to recognise that many women do in fact enjoy speaking in public and do not suffer from performance anxiety. Bucholtz (1999) has criticised some earlier feminist research as `good girl research' arguing that it has studied normatively white middle class women being normatively feminine, that is behaving in stereotypically feminine ways. Thus, Lakoff's (1975) research focuses on women who are behaving as stereotypically oppressed women, silenced by patriarchal norms of behaviour. Bucholtz's argument is that we should study other groups of women who behave in other ways, not confined by the normatively feminine. There is now a wave of research which focuses on girls and women who do not abide by these discursive and social norms of behaviour (see Holmes and Meyerhoff, 2003; Eckert and McConnel-Ginet, 2003). For example, Harness Goodwin has analysed the way that certain groups of girls in school playgrounds are very assertive and verbally aggressive, particularly when the activity is one on which they have expertise and where they wish to exclude other participants (Harness-Goodwin, 2003; 2001). Research into the speech norms of Afro-American women has shown that they do not appear to draw on the same discursive norms or traditions as stereotypically white middle class women and thus are not linguistically compliant (Morgan, 1999; Bucholtz, 1996). In my own work, I have been interested in the way that many women do not in fact appear to find it difficult to speak in the public sphere or to be assertive themselves verbally (Mills, 1999). Women like Margaret Thatcher, Condaleeza Rice and Ann Widdicombe have challenged the convention that women are uncomfortable speaking within the public sphere, and politicians such as Mary Robinson and Bennazir Bhutto have reconfigured the aggressive masculinist mode of political speaking by combining forcefulness with a soft-spoken style. Halberstam, (*** date ) in her work on `masculine' women has analysed the way that some women do not simply accept the stereotypical norms of behaviour, but rather challenge them, and perhaps parody and destabilise them, by consciously adopting behaviour conventionally associated with masculinity and with men. In a great deal of language and gender research, there has been a trend to focus now on women who adopt masculine norms in speech and thereby challenge the notion that these are in fact masculine norms at all and that women are necessarily associated with weakness and lack of assertiveness.
Gender and Confidence

As I have argued above, speaking in public generally involves claiming competence for oneself and projecting oneself as confident. Confidence itself is a nebulous concept, even though the way that it is experienced makes it appear very material and concrete. Many of the respondents to the questionnaire remarked that they either did or did not feel that they had confidence, as if it were an attribute of their personality which they were born with, rather than a positive evaluation of oneself which develops through an assessment of one's position in relation to others in the audience. For example, a female academic stated: `I am a totally non-public person (a near-recluse, I think!) – my ideal communication situation is one to one. I know I could approach absolutely anyone on that basis'. Once one has made this type of assessment of the type of personality that one has, and the type of communicative context in which one is comfortable, it may lead to one not feeling confident outside that sphere. Another female academic I questioned stated that she found giving papers difficult : `Because I am an introvert rather than an extrovert and so find it difficult projecting myself. This is probably a perceptual problem. I can probably talk in public much better than I think I can, and sometimes I know I have been very successful. I always prefer talking to smaller groups in  more intimate settings, where I feel much more “at home”.’ This use of the phrase `at home’ is particularly telling here, suggesting that this woman finds herself in a context which in some ways clashes with the norms associated with being a woman. But interestingly, rather than seeing this as a social or institutional problem, she considers this to be an individual problem of her `introversion’.

Baxter (2003) has shown that the confidence of the students that she studied seemed to be constructed in a curiously circular process, whereby those who were considered popular students were approved of by others and were consequently given the time and space to express their opinions; because of this approval they assumed that they were popular and in that process they behaved confidently. Those who were not popular were also not confident, again in a very circular process. A similar process seems to be at work in the giving of academic papers, and it is this circularity of the feedback and one's assumptions about one's audience and their approval or disapproval of you and your work which seems crucial in the process of deciding whether or not you `have' confidence and whether you `are' a confident person in general.
This notion that confidence is experienced when we make a positive assessment of our audience's assessment of us leads to a reconceptualising of power relations so that we can see them, as Thornborrow puts it, as emerging `in the interplay between participants' locally constructed, discursive identities and their institutional status' (Thornborrow, 2002: 1) Thus, from this discussion it is clear that neither gender identity nor confidence are fixed and part of our personalities or characters but are worked out in the process of assessing the local norms and judgements of ourselves which we consider to be in play within particular contexts.
Discussion of the data:

I sent out 25 copies of the questionnaire (see end of this paper) by e-mail attachment, to male and female academics and asked them to forward it to other colleagues. I received back 20 responses from females and 14 from males. 4 My initial assumption was that I would not find a great deal of difference between the responses of male and female academics, but that if I did find differences, they would not be in relation to who suffered from performance anxiety but rather in the way stage fright was conceptualised and interpreted. However, although I did find that there was a great deal of difference in the way that performance anxiety was conceptualised, in fact I also found that the female academics were much more willing to admit that they suffered from it. The male academics minimised the extent to which they experienced stage fright and in fact several of them suggested that they did not suffer from it at all.

The key factors which seem to contribute to performance anxiety as reported in the questionnaires are assessment of power relations, principally an assessment of the expertise of audience in relation to the speaker, and an assessment of the person’s right to speak in that context.

I will discuss the responses of the women academics first and then go on to analyse the male academics. I had assumed that those women who had received a great deal of positive encouragement from family and friends in relation to public speaking would find giving academic papers easy, but one of the female respondents stated : `Despite always being told I'm wonderful in front of an audience by my parents, being advised how to handle such nerve-racking situations, being told that I come across to others as a very confident person, being told not to worry because it will be fine if I just relax, I still cannot shake off the nerves, self-consciousness, worry, etc.'

Nearly all of the women academics remarked that greater experience led to a decrease in performance anxiety and the older academics were more prone to suggest that they did not suffer from stage fright. However, one woman stated that she found chairing small groups more difficult than giving papers and she commented: ` When I am chairing the small groups I am involved in I have learned that I cannot control the contributions of others but I can do preparation into making sure that there are appropriate places for the contributions of others; this minimises participant frustration. Lately I have not been as anxious about chairing meetings. This has been chiefly about doing some thinking about what it is I can and cannot control and not deluding myself that I have it in my power to control the outcome of a meeting. However I need to have confidence in the structure of the meeting format and the soundness of the principles underpinning it to be free of anxiety. When I thought that I would fail if I hadn't controlled everything I was more nervous because I was fearful that others would blow MY enterprise off course (which of course they would because why should they either identify or identify with my priorities?). I find most of the meetings I chair exciting because I am less frightened of surprises than I used to be.' It is particularly interesting that this academic is concerned about keeping everything under control, and she characterises her colleagues as not necessarily in sympathy with her aims to the point that she is worried about her enterprise being `blown off course’. The lexical set that this academic uses is significant, for she uses such words as `frightened’, `fearful’, `anxiety’, `fail’, `nervous’, `surprises’ in the same context as `power’, `control’, and `confidence’, suggesting that speaking authoritatively for women may provoke feelings of inadequacy, particularly in contexts where you have hypothesised that your colleagues might be `frustrated’ and not `identifying with my priorities’. An interesting parallel can be drawn to the comments of another female academic who stated that she suffered from performance anxiety : `Particularly where there are very large audiences such as a formal lecture theatre or auditorium where there are ranked seats, or if I know I am going to address senior people. I sometimes find that my mouth goes very dry and that I do become extremely aware of my situation. I imagine doing something disastrously wrong which will `blow my cover' as a serious academic!!' This notion of being exposed , or others discovering that you are not a real academic runs through many of the comments made in the questionnaires by female academics and highlights the way that many of them feel that their position is marginal within the institution.
Many of the women remarked that the cause of their nervousness was their colleagues' judgement of them, for example, one respondent whose first language is not English stated: `I know I am in some way evaluated by my colleagues. I feel they expect too much from me and I think they overestimate my capabilities – or probably I underestimate my capabilities. I am afraid of making mistakes in English or of being banal and tend to avoid situations where I must run the risk'. And another female academic commented: `For research talks, I think the worry is about how my peer group will receive the work – so far, I’ve always had very positive receptions so this isn’t based on any past bad experiences. Also, I worry about whether I will do justice to the research in my explanation of it (although, in reality, I’m better prepared for research talks than for any other public speaking'. What is significant here is that these women recognise that their assessment of their own performance or competence does not match the reality; however, that does not prevent them from continuing to doubt their abilities and assuming that their colleagues negatively evaluate their work.
Another woman academic stated : `I have never really enjoyed public speaking though it has got much easier over the years. I no longer feel very nervous when giving UG lectures for example. In recent times my worst experiences have been chairing meetings when I have had to deal with aggressive colleagues. I do not like conflict situations – either in private or conflict and my instinct is to run away! However, what is especially strange and characteristic about my response is that it appears to be invisible to the outside world! People always say I look calm and in control; I give little indication of what I feel – even though on occasions I have been close to passing out! I think there are also issues of ‘not speaking out’ in my family background. I have never been listened to at home and have little confidence that people will want to listen to what I say! My class background also makes me uncomfortable speaking in a professional register: my speaking and writing registers are very different and I feel weird using jargon speaking – though sometimes I can ‘speak’ this ‘language’.' Here it is clear that there is a range of factors which play a role in this person experiencing performance anxiety.
A further element which led to performance anxiety for many was the use of technical equipment which is very often coded as a masculine source of expertise; one female academic stated: `Our first year lectures are “video-linked” – we teach in one lecture theatre and it is transmitted at the same time to a remote lecture theatre since we don’t have a single lecture theatre big enough for the class. I dread having to do these lectures – partly because of worries that the equipment may not work (the technicians always disappear after the equipment has been set up), but also because I hate having to use anything more than an OHP when lecturing. It’s also very uncomfortable having to lecture to a remote audience since you don’t get the usual feedback (I can see them on a monitor, but it’s not the same as having them in front of you).' Thus, as in many of the other responses, this technical apparatus prevents the interaction being like a one-to-one or small group discussion where you can see the people that you are talking to and get feedback from them.
Interesting, one female academic stated that in order to control her nervousness, she tried to reconceptualise the public sphere so that it was more like the private sphere: ` I try to persuade myself that it is going to be an enjoyable experience, and that I know the people I am talking to. In other words, I try to envisage how I feel when I am talking one-to-one or to someone I know, and transfer this to the public situation. In the right mood, this works well! '
What is striking about these responses is that all of the women responded at some length, giving details of the symptoms that they suffered and the reasons that they suffered them. Many of them discussed explicitly their feelings of marginalisation and fear in relation to their colleagues. This is in marked contrast to the comments made by the male academics. The male respondents' comments were much more terse than those of the female academics and they used ironic humour much more. One remarked that the only solution to performance anxiety was to `prepare good content', as if nervousness stemmed from poor preparation or content alone . Very few of the men admitted to suffering from stage fright at all. One remarked that he did not suffer from stage fright because of his: `former career as stand-up comedian. failure holds no terrors.' One male academic stated that he did not suffer from anxiety because: `some unkind people (my wife) might say it is because I have an ego the size of a house'. Here, this respondent, through indirectly attributing this opinion to his wife, can assert his own ego stability as well as suggesting that performance anxiety only affects those who have psychological problems. Several of the male respondents simply stated that they suffered no anxiety at all speaking in public, or if they did it was only at the level which everyone experienced. Another stated that he did not suffer from much anxiety because he had experience of speaking in public contexts, particularly within his trade union; he remarked `familiarity with the experience overcomes the fear. You know you've done it before and that it won't kill you! Focusing on your 'message' helps a lot.' Another minimised the experience of anxiety , suggesting that the only problem he has was occasionally not remembering words. He commented `Mostly I don’t have problems, but I see that people unused to speaking in public do have them. So I suppose habit, practice, deliberately acting out a role, tricks one picks up such as not moving one’s feet (and other conscious control over signs of insecurity) and sweeping the audience with a glance so they all think you’re looking at them individually'. This seems to be asserting a strong identity for himself at the same time as drawing attention to the fact that his confidence is in fact an act, a set of `tricks’ that he has picked up.
Those men who did admit to suffering from performance anxiety still suggested that it should not be seen negatively . One male academic admitted that ` After the ‘exposure’ of an event I feel a desire to go and hide and look desperately for positive feedback. I can agonise for weeks about having said “the wrong thing”.’ Nevertheless he found that the questionnaire was ` too negative’ as `Public speaking can also bring a sense of exhilaration of well-being of self –confidence and enjoyment.’. Several other male academics agreed that nervousness should not be seen as a problem; one stated: ` It isn’t overwhelming and I associate it with being focused and ready to speak.' Another said : `I don’t see [these symptoms] as problems. I think it’s natural to feel keyed up before speaking in public.' This minimising of anxiety surprised me and so did the male academics’ minimising of the symptoms associated with stage fright. Whereas women discussing the symptoms described them in great detail, most of the male respondents stated that they simply suffered from occasional hesitation or stumbling over words. It seemed important for the males to represent themselves as confident and not suffering overly from performance anxiety, whereas the women academics seemed relatively untroubled at representing themselves as experiencing performance anxiety.


In a sense, these responses surprised me a little as I was expecting that the differences between males and females would be minimal. I had expected women and men perhaps to conceptualise their experience of performance anxiety differently, but I had not expected such a polarisation of response. The males seemed to be presenting themselves as stereotypically masculine individuals and only two of them admitted to experiencing any performance anxiety . Thus, it seems that either the males in this study did not suffer from anxiety to the same extent as the females, or they were not prepared to admit that they suffer anxiety, since confidence in the public sphere seems so integral to the construction of masculine identity. It seems from this small sample that the women questioned, on the whole, were more likely to interpret the situation of hostile questioning as personally threatening and were more likely to overestimate the audience's response to their paper. It may well be the case that the women in this small survey considered that they are `allowed’ to talk about inadequacy, because of the discursive norms of femininity, whereas it is more difficult for men to admit to inadequacy and lack of confidence. It is clear from these responses that confidence is a circular process whereby you judge your audience's assessment of your performance, and there may well be gendered frameworks which influence the assessment of your own value and confidence. However, there were significant numbers of the older women respondents who stated that they felt that with experience they had become more confident in public speaking. Thus, whilst it is clear that gender does play a role in our experiencing of performance anxiety, other factors such as age play a role as well. However, hypothesised stereotypes of gendered behaviour within particular gendered contexts lead to assumptions about our own position within the academic community and within the public sphere and these may lead to performance anxiety.


Baxter, J. 2003 Positioning Gender in Discourse: A Feminist Methodology, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Baxter, J. 2000 Jokers in the pack: why boys are more adept than girls at speaking out in public contexts, pp. 91-96, Language and Education, 16/2

Baxter, J. 1999 `Teaching girls to speak out: the female voice in public contexts', pp.81-98, Language and Education 13/2

Bourdieu, P. 1991 Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, Polity

Bucholtz, M 1999 `Bad examples: transgression and progress in language and gender studies', pp. 3-20, in eds. Bucholtz, M. Liang, A.C. Sutton, L. Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York

Bucholtz, M. 1996 `Black feminist theory and African American women's linguistic practice' in Bergvall, V. Bing, J. and Freed, A. eds. Rethinking Language and Gender Research, London, Longman

Butler, J. 1993 Bodies that Matter: In the Discursive Limits of Sex, London, Routledge

Butler, J. 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London, Routledge

Cotterill, J. 2003 Language and Power in Court, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Eckert, P. and McConnell-Ginet, S. 2003 Language and Gender, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Fairclough, N. 2000 New Labour, New Language, London, Routledge

Freed, A 1996 `Language and gender research in an experimental setting' in Bergvall, V. Bing, J. and Freed A. eds. Rethinking Language and Gender Research Harlow, Longman.

Harness-Goodwin, M. 2003 `The relevance of ethnicity, class and gender in children's peer negotiations', in Holmes, J. and Meyerhoff, M. eds. The Handbook of Language and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell.

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Harness Goodwin, M. 2001 `Organising participation in cross-sex jump rope: situating gender differences within longitudinal studies of activities,' pp.75-106, in Research on Language and Social Interaction 34/1

Holmes, J. and Schnurr, S. (forthcoming) `Politeness, humour and gender in the workplace: negotiating norms and identifying contestation', Journal of Politeness Research, 1/1

Holmes, J. and Stubbe, M. 2003 `"Feminine" workplaces; stereotype and reality' pp.573-600, in Holmes, J. and Meyerhoff, M. eds. The Handbook of Language and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell.

Holmes, J. 1992 ` Women's talk in public contexts', pp.131-50, Discourse and Society, 3/2

Johnson, S. and Meinhof, U. 1997 Language and Masculinity, Oxford, Blackwell

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Kendall, S. 2003 `Creating gendered demeanors of authority at work and at home', in Holmes, J. and Meyerhoff, M. eds. The Handbook of Language and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell.

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Mills, S. 2003 Gender and Politeness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Mills, S. 1999 `Discourse competence; or how to theorise strong women speakers', pp.81-90, in Hendricks, C. and Oliver, K. eds. Language and Liberation: Feminism, Philosophy, Language, New York, State of New York University Press

Morgan, M. 1999 `No woman, no cry: Claiming African American women's place', in eds. Bucholtz, M. Liang, A.C. Sutton, L. Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York

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Weatherall, A. and Gallois, C. 2003 `Gender and identity: representation and social action', in Holmes, J. and Meyerhoff, M. eds. The Handbook of Language and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell.

Useful Websites on Stage fright/performance anxiety:

Antion, T. 2004 `Stage fright strategies',

Barkley, S. 2004. `Stage fright in the observation process'

Janof, T. 2004 `Overcoming stage fright', International Cello Society,

Johnson, M. 2004 `The solo performer: stage fright',

Maliga, L. 2004 `How to overcome stage fright',

Scott, A. 2003. `Stage fright',
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Appendix: : Questionnaire on Public Speaking
As part of research I am doing on gender and public speaking, I wonder if you could answer a few questions on this sheet:

Age range: 20-30; 30-40; 40-50; 50-60; 60-70

Status: i.e. lecturer, reader, professor etc

  1. Do you speak in public? Which contexts is that normally in ? Extempore speaking to groups ? Papers read to groups ? Chairing meetings? Large groups ? Small groups? Peers ?

  1. Have you ever experienced problems with speaking in public: nervousness, stage fright, anxiety

2.1. In which contexts is that most likely to happen?

2.2. What sort of things have you experienced, for example: breathlessness, shaking, blushing, extreme self-awareness, hesitation etc?

2.3. What do you do in order to get over these problems?
2.4. Why do you think you experience these problems?
3. If you do not experience any problems with public speaking, why do you think that is ?
Thank you for your help; please send your comments on this sheet as an attachment by e-mail to Sara Mills, HYPERLINK "" ᄉᄃ or to English, Sheffield Hallam University, Collegiate Cres., Sheffield S10 2BP
All responses to this questionnaire are anonymised.

1 Bourdieu's notion of habitus is extremely important here for analysing the way that societal and contextual norms map out the range of possible forms of behaviour for the individual (Bourdieu, 1991).

2 Weatherall and Gallois (2003) note that in the broadcasting industry even the quality of women's voices has often been seen as inappropriate and therefore high pitch has been used as a justification for restricting women broadcasters to certain roles.

3 We may want to argue that these values are not in fact feminine but egalitarian; or we may want to see them as more about a certain informality becoming acceptable within certain types of workplace. We may then want to question whether it is useful to describe these values as feminine or masculine. However, it does seem sensible to retain them, since participants in studies of the workplace themselves tend to use this system of classification to describe their workplaces.

4 This questionnaire should be seen as indicative of certain views, but obviously because of the small scale of the survey I will not be generalising to women as a whole or men as a whole, nor would I want to make any claims for its validity outside the confines of this group of academics. These findings do nevertheless have some value for suggesting the way in which individuals might think about performance anxiety and its relation to their gender identity.

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