Are You Managing Your Tone?

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, recently appointed to the Shadow Cabinet, was one of the top trends on Twitter yesterday as she hit 100,000 followers. The reason she hit the headlines is not her number of followers, or something she said – it was for what was said in response to her maiden speech in the House of Commons as part of the shadow health team. Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health & Social Care, drew gasps as he commented on her tone. To be very careful to quote the precise facts, his exact words were:

 “I think she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary of State’s book – in terms of tone”

Do you Matt? Really?

As I watched this exchange, and indeed as I have watched the speeches of many ministers during this crisis, I think it’s Mr Hancock who needs to reconsider his tone. Presiding over the highest number of deaths in Europe reported to date, manipulating the number of tests completed, and not providing protective equipment to healthcare workers, contributing to the deaths of over 107 NHS workers and 29 in social care to date, should surely elicit a different tone to the current triumphant one?

In the interests of sticking purely to facts, I thought it would be interesting to compare the education, experience and qualifications of Mr Hancock and Dr Allin-Khan. That might suggest that Matt Hancock would do well to take a leaf out of Dr Rosena Allin-Khan’s book. Or indeed read some of the books she has studied and read during her education and training.

CV Comparison

Some organisations, when they are recruiting, deliberately take the names off CVs and just look at the facts to avoid unconscious bias in their candidate selections. There are many studies that show how biases unfairly impact recruitment processes.  Following that example, here are the two ministers’ CVs side by side:

If you were comparing those two CVs without knowing who they are and not seeing their names, which one would you choose to speak about the issues in healthcare during the Covid-19 crisis? Undoubtedly, Dr Allin-Khan. If you’re not sure which one that is, it’s the CV on the left. Dr Allin-Khan has a medical education, a master’s degree in public health, frontline experience in the NHS and she can see what is going on whenever she works a shift at St George’s Hospital. Whereas Mr Hancock has never worked in healthcare. The word ‘health’ only appears on his CV in his ministerial role that he has occupied since 2018. These are the facts; the uncomfortable facts for Mr Hancock.

Speech and Tone

If we unpick what happened yesterday, it is loaded with their backgrounds and facts. Dr Allin-Khan shines a light on Mr Hancock’s lack of experience and expertise in the area over which he is Minister. He is there due to his own privilege and connections. Her very presence in that space makes him uneasy, uncomfortable and irritates him. That she should then point out the facts and ask him questions pushes him to the limits of his superior veneer. So let’s look at the facts again and what was actually said:

If I may start by saying a huge thank you on behalf of us all in here today and all of those watching to our NHS and care staff who are working so hard on the frontline.”

Matt Hancock, opposite her as she says this, will already be feeling uneasy, as her heartfelt thanks is as a colleague to her fellow NHS workers. Mr Hancock himself likes to call NHS workers his colleagues, but deep down he knows that’s not true.

Next, she shines a light on the situation:

Front line workers like me have had to watch families break into pieces as we deliver the very worst of news to them. That the ones they love most in this world have died.”

This is an even more uncomfortable truth for Mr Hancock. He is not having to deliver such news to people, but he knows Dr Allin-Khan is doing that work. He may not be consciously thinking all this as she speaks, but you can easily imagine beads of sweat beginning to form on his brow.

She continues with a list of facts:

“The testing strategy has been non-existent. Community testing was scrapped. Mass testing was slow to roll out, and testing figures are now being manipulated. Does the Secretary of State commit to a minimum of 100,000 tests a day going forwards, and does the Secretary of State acknowledge that many frontline workers feel that the government’s lack of testing has cost lives and is responsible for many families being unnecessarily torn apart in grief?”

With this direct question, Mr Hancock reverts to his best defence: his privilege, his position, his status, his volume, his rage… he rises to his feet to put her firmly in her place and avoids eye contact with her as he responds:

No I don’t, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the lady to her post as part of the Shadow health team.

I think she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary of State’s book – in terms of tone.

I’m afraid what she said is not true.”

I have listened back to her speech several times, checking her tone, pace, volume and eye contact during her speech. I recognise her method of speaking. She is very slow, very deliberate and very level in her tone. She has practised for years and learnt how to do this. I know this as I have had to do the same. Raising your voice, speaking too quickly or too loudly just means that you are labelled as ‘bossy,’ ‘loud,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘aggressive,’ ‘emotional’ or ‘rude’. In speaking in the way in which she did, everyone watching can quite clearly see that there is absolutely nothing for her to correct about the tone in which she spoke.

If we unpick this some more, what Mr Hancock said is “she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary of State’s book”. The Shadow Secretary of State he refers to is Jonathan Ashworth, a white man with an education and work history which more resembles Mr Hancock’s. The message is clear: the House of Commons is the domain of the white man, with an education and background like Mr Hancock’s. He firmly intends to put Dr Allin-Khan down, to remind her of what he considers to be her place and her position, and that she should be deferential to his superiority.

Meritocracy and Representation

Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women shines a light on this theory of meritocracy. Her research showed that “women receive negative personality criticism that men simply don’t” and that “Women are told to watch their tone, to step back. They are called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional and irrational”.

These discussions around tone are all rooted in the inherent position of privilege; of male privilege and white privilege. People who step outside of the position assigned to them by the system are told to get back to their place. What complicates this for those people doing the telling, is that, increasingly, they are inferior in these positions when people like Dr Allin-Khan rise to their roles due to their own intelligence and hard work. This causes extreme discomfort for the likes of Matt Hancock, who sees the House of Commons as his place.

Let’s go back to some facts again. During the Covid-19 crisis, what has been striking to many people are the demographics of the people leading the response, leading the commentary and leading the debates in the UK. Both Forbes and The Guardian featured articles about the female leaders of the world and how they are leading their nations. Surely no one can have missed the brilliance of Jacinda Ardern, whose country has seen only 21 deaths from Covid-19? Again, sticking to facts, she has a degree in Communication Studies in Public Relations and Political Science. That, and a high degree of emotional intelligence, show in her communication style, as she leads her country through this.

If we come back to the UK, I notice every day how many white men we see leading responses and communications. This week the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was published. The Guardian reported on the stats saying:

“the gender balance of SAGE is predictably skewed, with 16 men to seven women and only one ethnic minority person. Given that coronavirus has been shown to disproportionately affect people from black and ethnic minority communities, the comparative lack of black and ethnic minority experts seems a troubling omission”

Looking at the NHS’s own data from 2019, 77% of the NHS are women, with 46% of senior manager roles held by women, 43% of doctors are women, as are the majority of medical trainees. In social care, 80% of the roles are filled by women. For ethnicity, one in five are from non-white ethnic groups, and Asian people are 29.7% of medics. As someone from a British-Indian background, this is of no surprise to me: we always joke that every Indian family in the UK has at least one doctor in it, and most families have several.

Given this is the case, and given the stats on the high percentage of people from BAME backgrounds who are dying from Covid-19, how can the government explain having only one person from an ethnic minority in SAGE? Surely for purely scientific reasons, you would want a range of people to be assessing the research and facts?

Well it’s that old friend privilege again. In the latest data published by NHS England, 14.7% of the senior management are from BAME backgrounds, and the NHS boards in England need to appoint 500 more women to achieve equality. There are many people who would see no problem with this at all, since in their view people need to be careful of the tone in which they speak and know their place. Too many people see no problem with leadership roles being the privilege of people from one gender and one race.

Your thoughts, Mr Hancock?

Minding Your Language

In the 1970s there was a TV sitcom called ‘Mind Your Language’. It was cancelled in 1979 due to the offensive stereotyping of people from different races and nationalities. The Race Relations Act in 1965 outlawed discrimination on the grounds of colour, race or ethnic or national origins, but it did little to halt the subtle ways that racism expresses itself through the silencing and censoring of people of colour.

Gender pay gap reporting was introduced in April 2017, and was damning across all sectors. Little progress has been made since then, with some sectors like financial services actually going backwards in terms of progress.

This is the context within which yesterday’s exchange in the House of Commons took place. Dr Allin-Khan’s backstory of her life and career says even more about her rightful place in the Shadow cabinet. She is the child of immigrants, from Poland and Pakistan, she attended a comprehensive school, funded her education through part-time work and scholarships. After qualifying as a doctor she worked in refugee camps in Lebanon and Pakistan, she talks about how it helped her to understand human desperation. Her experiences and life not only make her extremely well-informed, they drive her emotional empathy when she addresses the issues. They also no doubt further fuel the perception of some privately-educated individuals from wealthy backgrounds that she does not belong amongst them.

Dr Allin-Khan’s tone and language are guided by the knowledge and the background that have shaped her, as well as by the long list of life experiences that have taught her how to speak and be heard without attracting labels and accusations. I know from my own experience in this area that she chose her words and her tone extremely carefully.

Looking at the commentary that followed yesterday afternoon’s events in the House of Commons, there are very few supporters of the way Matt Hancock spoke to Dr Allin-Khan. The right-wing press found themselves in a tricky situation with this story, and the news that the UK now has the highest death toll in Europe caused them further problems. No wonder they resorted to focusing on the story about a scientist resigning over his affair with an attractive blonde. A welcome distraction for those seeking to hide the failings of this government.

I can only conclude from all of this that it’s Mr Hancock and others of a similar disposition who need to mind their language and tone as we progress through this crisis and beyond. Matt Hancock would do well to spend some time thinking about the families of those who have lost their lives, and the NHS and social care workers who are caring for the vulnerable whilst handling the loss of their colleagues. Next time he is clapping for our NHS workers, he may want to reflect on why he will celebrate the idea of them but attempt to silence their voices.

Enough of the triumphant, self-congratulatory tone we have seen from Mr Hancock and his colleagues. It’s time for a very different tone.


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