Women in Politics: Confident not Coy

Ahmed Elauri

I have a dream (…) that one day (….) my children (…) will grow up to read Cat in the Hat.  Now that probably sounded a lot more dramatic than it actually was. People, especially American politicians, love to take pauses while speaking. Martin Luther King Jr. did it, Barrack Obama did it, Nancy Pelosi does it. Pauses are often used because their versatile roles, especially in politics. Pauses can be used to provide emphasis, invoke emotion, or just to catch someone’s breath. Due to the flexibility of pauses, this research investigated how men and women within politics use silence within their speech differently. While women were expected to take more pauses to sound less aggressive and to prevent standing out, the data suggests men may take more pauses during their speech.  This research compared the speech of Vice President Kamala Harris and former Vice President Mike Pence to see who spoke more fluidly during the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate. Harris used fewer pauses, indicating women in politics may be more confident and fluid speakers than their male counterparts.

Linguistic Restraint in Politics and Gender

Introduction & Background

Politics is centered around public perception of individuals, making each political figure highly subject to scrutiny (Shabrina, 2016). Specifically, the speech of Kamala Harris, and Mike Pence were analyzed. Vice President Harris hails from California, where she had experience as a U.S. Senator, and as District Attorney. Former Vice President Pence comes from Indiana, where he had been Governor. Both individuals have had bright political careers, although they do have differences. Vice President Harris is a female of color from California, whilst former Vice President Pence is a white male from the Midwest. This study focused comparisons based on differences in gender.

This research was performed to answer the following research questions. How does gender affect usage of pauses and silences within speech in a political environment? More specifically, how often are pauses used, what functions do they primarily serve, and how effective are they at completing their function

Males and females were expected to respond differently due to the Difference Theory because politicians do not want to sound strange. Therefore, they likely would conform to social norms and act within specific gendered behaviors. 

Females were expected to use pauses more often than men, possibly to invoke an emotional response from the audience or to prevent appearing aggressive and overbearing. Conversely, men were expected to use fewer pauses. They may include pauses to add emphasis or to change flow of speech to keep the audience engaged. Men were expected to speak more smoothly, likely due to the male dominance in politics and having more comfort in the spotlight. The Difference Theory argues that men and women have separate genders, and thereby learn to socialize separately (Tannen, 1991). The difference in socialization leads to each gender performing different practices. For men, this means they primarily communicate to convey information(Tannen, 1991). For women, this means they have a rapport speaking style, where they speak to build relationships (Tannen, 1991). Similarly, the concept of perceived affordances, or what people feel they are socially permitted to do, also factors into how men and women will use pauses (Norman, 1999). The way we speak is a reflection of our entitlement within society (Segalowitz, 2001). As men and women have different roles within society, their entitlement based on affordances will alter when they use pauses, and the pauses’ associated function.

Previous studies have shown that power imbalances can lead to differences in the linguistic features that are used (Kollock, 1985). It has been speculated that these linguistic differences are linked to gender, more information on gendered power in politics can be found here.

During the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, the use of silence was very deliberate by Senators and by Judge Thomas. In said case, the pause time allotted between answers given and the following question being asked, for Judge Thomas was adequate enough for him to be able to respond with a calm tone and with sound answers. Conversely, Dr. Hill was given substantially less pause time, causing her discomfort and stress in attempt discredit her (Mendoza-Denton, 2001).

Much of the past research is decades old, and focused on different specific sociolinguistic factors. The age of past research and the absence of research on pauses within a political speaker’s message leave a knowledge gap that is filled by this work.


This study specifically examined conversations and dialogue between Vice President Kamala Harris, and former Vice President Mike Pence. The conversations that were analyzed were from the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate. Considerations of this text include the female moderator, Susan Page, who was facilitating the debate. Conversations were randomly selected, transcribed, then analyzed.

Both parties were afforded equal speaking time and opportunities to speak at the debate, having strong previous political careers and being in contention for the same position. Transcriptions were recorded and made for each example and can be deciphered using the key found in the Appendix of this blog.


Figure 1. Summary of the research study findings, particularly the average values of pauses throughout the examined conversations.

Two examples will be briefly shown in Figures 2 and 3.







The first example titled ‘Prayers and Concern’ (Figure 2) came from Pence. As shown in lines 2-5, there is a high number of pauses, within his four lines of speech. Furthermore, he exhibited two glottal stops. The significance here is in the density of his pauses, which have a high frequency within a short section of speech, and have long individual lengths.

Figure 2. An excerpt from a conversation between Mike Pence and Susan Page.

Pence performs eight long mid-speech pauses within his answer, and about two per each line of text. Pence has two glottal stops in speech, both during line 2. The line 2 glottal stop seems relevant to the long pauses in lines 2,3, and 4 which are discussed below. The early stops indicate they are not meant to disturb flow, or provide emphasis on any points made, as there are no points made yet. This is different from the next transcript.

Example 2 titled ‘Confidence’ (Figure 3) is a transcript that follows Harris’ response to the same question. Immediately you can see the contrast between Harris’ response and Pence’s response in Example 1. The significance in this example is from the lack of pauses and the confidence in her answer.

Figure 3. An excerpt from a conversation between Kamala Harris and Susan Page.

Harris has three lines of text here, fewer than Pence’s response of four lines, but nonetheless, her answer is much different. Whilst Pence has two pauses per line, for a total of eight pauses; when answering the same question, Harris had only two long pauses, both of which were significantly shorter than the mid-speech pauses exhibited by Pence.

Discussion & Conclusion

Harris’ speech faired as more fluid than Pence’s speech, including fewer glottal stops, fewer pauses, and shorter pauses. Many of Harris’ pauses were directly following bold claims or negative statements towards her opponent. This directly contrasts with the hypothesis which predicted women in politics to be timid. Furthermore, Pence’s pauses were often used at times when he seemed flustered, or as though he was struggling with choosing words to say.

While these results are limited, as they focused on a singular event and two specific politicians, this research indicates that times are changing. Further research including analyzing more individuals in different situations must be done to support the results found here. Nonetheless, the findings within this study indicate women have strong voices within American politics, and are willing to aggress head-to-head with their male counterparts.


References and other used sources

C-Span. (2020) Vice Presidential Debate, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_G0ia3JOVs

Mendoza-Denton, N. (2001). Pregnant pauses. Teaching Modern Foreign Languages: A Handbook for Teachers, 50.


Holiday, N. (2020). Kamala Harris and the Prosody of Parody.https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=49201&fbclid=IwAR1JIOXRML8cIeeKnHIkKo4KY1o_gHrH8DK5urOB_Y4utetBEPYskijLOQE

Raymond, C. W. (2019). Category accounts: Identity and normativity in sequences of action. Language in Society, 48(4), 585-606.

Kollock, Peter, Philip Blumstein & Pepper Schwartz. (1985). Sex and power in interaction: Conversational privileges and duties. American sociological review, 50.34-46.

Rickford, J. R., Duncan, G. J., Gennetian, L. A., Gou, R. Y., Greene, R., Katz, L. F., … & Ludwig, J. (2015). Neighborhood effects on use of African American vernacular english. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(38), 11817-11822.

Shabrina, I. (2016). Persuasive strategies used in Hillary Clinton’s political campaign speech (Doctoral dissertation, Universitas Islam Negeri Maulana Malik Ibrahim).

Tannen, D. (1991). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation (1. ed). Ballantine Books.

Norman, D. (1999). Affordance, conventions, and design. Interactions, 6, 38–42. https://doi.org/10.1145/301153.301168

Segalowitz, N., Cohen, P., Chan, A., & Prieur, T. (2001). Musical Recall Memory: Contributions of Elaboration and Depth of Processing. Psychology of Music, 29(2), 139–148. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735601292004

Read more