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Why did Matt Hancock’s tone policing backfire? Because women like Rosena Allin-Khan have put up with it all their lives

Women learn from experience that every time they express an opinion, they walk a tightrope. It was no different for the Tooting MP and A&E doctor


Pragya Agarwal
Wednesday 06 May 2020 16:35 BST
Matt Hancock fails to commit to 100,000 daily coronavirus tests

When the shadow minister for mental health, Rosena Allin-Khan, asked Matt Hancock, the health secretary, about the government’s failure to test frontline workers for Covid-19 during Health Questions, the average person would have expected a relatively respectful response.

Instead, visibly irritated by Allin-Khan’s audacity to do her job as an A&E doctor and an MP in her Tooting constituency, ie, hold the government accountable, Hancock denied her claims that a lack of testing was costing lives and told her to take a leaf out of the shadow secretary of state’s book “in terms of tone”.

Thankfully, when Allin-Khan refused to, Twitter erupted with outpourings of support. While Hancock’s comment raised concerns about the everyday sexism women face, Allin-Khan’s response has resonated in particular with women of colour who have been silenced in similar ways and policed in the public sphere by men for too long. Women of colour are often called “aggressive” when they are merely being direct, with longstanding tropes, such as the “angry black woman”, harming some communities more than others. Think back to depictions of Serena Williams or instances of similar words being levelled at Michelle Obama, the former first lady, wherein Michelle was called an “angry black woman” on the campaign trail and was perceived to be emasculating her husband. Every time I express a mildly strong opinion on social media, I have faced backlash, particularly from white men, advising me to “not be so angry all the time”.

Looking at the clip, it’s clear there was absolutely nothing wrong with Allin-Khan’s tone. Yet Hancock wasted no time insinuating that this woman, with her expert opinion – based on personal experience as a frontline worker – was in some way being aggressive or threatening merely because she expressed herself in a straightforward and authoritative way.

It’s a prime example of gender policing – the enforcement of normative gender ideals associated with the gender binary onto individuals. In many contexts, gender performances consistent with normative “masculinity” or “femininity” are encouraged and rewarded, whereas gender transgressive performances (defying gender norms) are discouraged through punishment or, more often, negative reactions.

Women are expected to be silent – “good women do not talk” – and girls are taught to be nice, selfless, polite, quiet. Women learn from experience that every time they express an opinion, they walk a tightrope. They are either considered too aggressive or “mouthy”, or they are interrupted and shut down.

In herOh Do Shut Up Dear!lectures, classicist Mary Beard examines how women’s voices have been silenced in public in particular, using examples such as Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey being told that “speech will be the business of men”.

Women’s capacity to speak has always been perceived as more threatening, and their voices seen as more “annoying”, especially in the public sphere.

Yale psychologist Victoria L Brescoll found that male senators with more power (as measured by tenure and leadership positions) spoke more on the Senate floor than their junior colleagues. Women, on the other hand, become more concerned about backlash as they reach leadership positions, so female leaders are likely to speak less often than men in spaces with equal representation of men and women because they are fearful of being perceived as aggressive. The final part of this study showed that powerful women are in fact correct in assuming that they will incur backlash as a result of talking more than others.

Women and men are treated differently in the workplace. Women, in essence, face a double-bind bias. They are either too “soft” to be good leaders or, if they demonstrate qualities that are more “masculine”, they are considered too aggressive and therefore bad leaders.

Masculine-feminine stereotypes count not only against women but also against men. They push people into certain boxes and when they demonstrate qualities that are not seen as the norm they are more likely to be bullied. Women are punished (through words and gestures) for talking, while men are rewarded. Women continue to be judged through a different lens than men, the underlying bias being that what women have to say is not as important.

Racial microaggressions and ingrained bias also manifest in response to women of colour expressing anger. Women are often interrupted or made to feel embarrassed for speaking up, tactics designed to silence and discredit them. The intersection of race and gender always creates a much more heightened policing environment for women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw has said: “Race and gender are always interconnected and never exist as separately distinct, disaggregated identities.”

Language, and the words we use, are often a result of socialisation. It is an anchor for societal norms and has to be understood in the right context. If it is conveyed through words and actions that women are the inferior sex, then this reflects the wider societal perception and view of women. In challenging such encounters, however, the focus shifts back from the aggressor to the response from the individual under attack. Within a few seconds, any woman who fights back against stereotypes or the policing of her voice is transformed into an aggressive, erratic, oversensitive woman, thereby seen to be confirming more of the same stereotypes that she is standing up against. It is often a hopeless, no-win situation.

In this case, Allin-Khan has taken the incident in her stride, ironically repeating iterations of what Hancock said to her. While on one hand this demonstrates the absurdity of the encounter, it also sadly shows that women of colour are so used to being challenged and policed that they almost expect it, and in some ways accept it too. This kind of behaviour might seem inconsequential, but such microaggressions – communicated via verbal or nonverbal messages – are targeted at people based on their membership of a marginalised group, and in this way demean and devalue them, “othering” them, highlighting their inferior status and marginalising them even further.

Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, activist and writer. She is the author of upcoming book ‘SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias’ with Bloomsbury

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