We spend a lot of time telling girls to speak up and make their voices heard. It’s a message embraced by a large slice of the music, TV and film industry. Corporations, from banks to soap companies, love the halo that comes from advertising campaigns featuring girls delivering messages about empowerment. And there are special programs designed to encourage girls to assert themselves.
But what happens when those girls grow up and act on this advice? If the past week is anything to go by, women’s voices are unwelcome across large swathes of public life.
First we had the spectacle of New Yorker contributor Jim Holt interrupt physics professor Veronika Hubeny when she explained her own research in string theory and quantum gravity. That’s right: she was the expert, but a man felt the need to explain her ideas for her and the assembled audience.
So persistent was Holt in talking over Hubeny that an audience member intervened, shouting “Let her speak, please!” Clearly others felt the same way; the interjection was met with applause.
A few days later, Uber board member and partner at private equity group TPG David Bonderman resigned after letting slip how he felt about more women joining the Uber board. “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking,” Bonderman said.
Ironically, Bonderman made the remark at a staff meeting about the company’s culture, and in front of one of the world’s most powerful businesswomen, Arianna Huffington.
We can only assume that Bonderman thought his belief that women talk too much — and by implication, contribute too little — was so uncontroversial that he didn’t realise he was being sexist until the backlash hit.
Bonderman’s cluelessness isn’t that surprising when you consider that men are so practiced at discrediting women’s voices and shutting them down, that they even gang up to support each other in doing it. Which brings us to example number three.
For the second time in two weeks, US Senator Kamala Harris was cut off by two male Republican senators during her questioning at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about Russian election interference.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who you’d think would be familiar with courtroom questioning, said that the speed of Harris’s questions made him nervous. Fortunately, there were two male senators on hand to interrupt Harris’s questioning and tell her to give Sessions more time to answer.
And then just for good measure, another bloke, Jason Miller, a former advisor to President Trump’s campaign, stuck the boot into Senator Harris by playing the “hysterical” card. You know — the one where men try to discredit a woman’s passion or forthrightness by implying she’s emotionally unstable?
To make their voice heard, men can rely on anger and aggression. Not only does this enable them to dominate the conversation, they are also rewarded for their hostility by being perceived as competent.
Women on the other hand, can’t fall back on these tactics. Research suggests that when women display any form of aggression, they are considered incompetent and too emotional to handle the job.
You might think that we are all more enlightened in Australia. And you’d be wrong.
When the Australian Institute of Company Directors asked “Should there be more women in Australian boardrooms?” they received responses from male business leaders such as: “Women talk too much. They don’t get to the heart of the matter and they lengthen board meetings,” and “We had a woman on the board previously and it just didn’t work out”.
This is despite research showing that women speak far less than men in public forums and are regularly interrupted by men. One study showed men speak 75 per cent of the time at conferences, leaving only 25 per cent of airtime for women.
The idea that women waste men’s important time with their incessant and incoherent chatter is so strongly embedded in our culture that many women believe it themselves.
For example, my friend Jules recently had a meeting at her daughter’s school about the differences in the boys’ and girls’ uniforms. The boys’ uniform was more practical, comfortable and offered more choice. The school agreed to the changes, so it was a victory for Jules, her daughter and all the current and future female students.
But in re-telling the story to me, Jules kept chiding herself for talking too much in the meeting. She wished, she said, that she didn’t ramble so much.
Think about that word “ramble” for a moment. Not only do many people assume that women speak too much, but too often they think that what we say is unfocused, or that it’s trivial and distracting men from more important things.
Which is odd, because I’m sure many of us have sat through a meeting dominated by a long, boring monotone of a man. Rambling conversation isn’t something confined to women, but we tend to act as if it were.
Research also shows women’s voices add such clarity and insight to discussions that corporations and institutions that listen to women are more profitable and secure.
The lesson from last week is not that women talk too much. It’s that we talk too much compared with what is expected of women. That’s an important difference.
What is expected of us is to make ourselves small; to not take up too much time or space.
We do not have a problem with how much women speak. The real problem is with the ingrained view that we should not speak.