Why don’t women speak up?

By Caitlin Kelly

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. Legendary for her ferocious biographies, she was so much fun!

Fascinating, depressing, unsurprising read in The New York Times this week:

Women’s voices are often missing and discounted in public affairs, even when they have seats at the tables of power. They speak less, make fewer motions and are more often subject to negative interruptions. Similar patterns prevail online.

If they feel at a disadvantage speaking as women, it’s because they are. In settings as varied as school boards, Vermont town meetings, community meetings in rural Indian villages and online news sites worldwide, researchers have quantified how women’s voices are underrepresented.

Women take up just a quarter to a third of discussion time where policy is discussed and decisions made, except when they are in the majority.

As someone — clearly! — unafraid to speak up publicly, whether in a blog post, letter to the editor, (with my letters published in the Times and in Newsweek), essays or op-eds — I’m not someone scared of being heard.

But so many women are!

I was raised this way, and many girls aren’t: I attended a single-sex school ages 8 to 13 and single-sex camps ages 8 to 16, where women led and their competence simply assumed as normal and expected.

I was raised by my father after I turned 14, and he never discouraged me from speaking out, (even if he should have!)

If you’ve ever attended a town meeting or a conference or a public panel discussion, especially when there is a microphone one must speak into, where you’re being recorded on video and audio, it’s an intimidating moment to speak out loud in front of strangers.

They might laugh. They might jeer. They might boo.

Or — they might listen attentively.

I see a similar pattern, and one that disturbs me, everywhere. If you read Twitter, and comments during Twitterchats; if you read letters to the editor in print; if you read on-line comments, you, too, will have noticed the paucity of women’s voices and opinions.

Only one woman’s name stands out as being an extremely vocal letter-writer to the Times, a professor at Brown named Felicia Nimue Ackerman. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen her published comments many, many times.

In one of the many writing classes I’ve taught, I urged my students to start writing letters to the editor, to add more female voices to the overwhelmingly male cacophony. I was thrilled to see one of their letters recently in The Economist.

A random survey this week showed three letters to the October 31 issue of the New Yorker (all women); 11 letters to the Financial Times (no women!); nine letters to the FT (one woman) and eight letters to the FT (no women’s name I recognized; couldn’t tell the gender of three of them.)

Our voices need to be heard!

We vote. We pay taxes. We employ millions of workers. We serve our country in the police force, fire houses and the military.

Why don’t more women speak up?

Frustration at being ignored, talked over or consistently interrupted by men. Responding can make us look bitchy, when it’s they who are being rude.

— Lack of practice: the less often you speak out, the more scary it seems.

— Lack of time. Too busy working/commuting/caring for others’ needs.

— Lack of interest in the subject at hand.

— Lack of self-confidence. “Who’d want to hear my voice anyway?”

— Fear of being trolled, getting rape or death threats. That has happened to women online, certainly.

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of saying the “wrong thing”, whatever that is.

— Fear of losing professional status, especially in a male-dominated industry or field. 

From Guts, a Canadian feminist magazine, written by a woman who fought against workplace bullying:

The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.

Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.

Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.


Do you speak up?

When, where and why?

31 thoughts on “Why don’t women speak up?

  1. In grad school, one of my professors assigned Tannen’s Talking from Nine to Five. HUGE eye opener for me, coming from a matriarchal family with five sisters–and a father who was ahead of his time. As much as I hate Trump’s misogyny, I love that it has opened up a national discussion–international, really–on the role of women, stereotypes, etc. What’s out in the open can be healed.

  2. I speak up now more than ever, but that is the result of personal confidence & wisdom that comes with age more than anything else. I have also come to see my voice as an instrument that needs to be played in a way that’s appropriate for the setting. If I can be candid, Hillary is a great example of someone who sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails in that area. When she is measured and controlled, her voice is easy to listen to- she slows down, pauses, is more deliberate..when she “gets going” the tone of her voice is..let’s just say, screechy and extraordinarily distracting. Do men have this issue?..some do, but not many as their voices are just naturally lower pitched. Learning how to speak, both in a business setting and in a public setting, is a skill that should be taught in school- to everyone.

    1. I agree with you…age confers self-confidence in knowing more about the world and how it works (or doesn’t.)

      I know what you mean about Hillary’s voice — but it’s her character and experience that matter more to me now.

      1. I so wish I had “the tools” I have today when I was 20-ish..most important among them confidence and SOO much less self-consiousness. 👍 This election though..ugh. I had to announce to my four grown kids who were all retreating to different ‘sides’ that these candidates, and their behavior, were beneath the dignity of our family and not worth ONE single argument. I frankly wouldn’t give either of them the key to my house to water the plants- that’s how much I don’t trust either of them. In many ways both share the traits that offend me most, greatest among them the fact that they have skirted around the laws that we have to follow, mainly to enrich themselves. Hillary’s wealth bothers me more than Trump’s though. He’s a businessman.. The Clintons have amassed a fortune in public service and charity work- Those two are kinda like those rich TV pastor couples of the 80s who preached from their podiums, flew around in private jets, collected donations, lived in huge mansions and hid behind a wall of “good works” ..yuck. Oh well..it is what it is..there is no clean choice- I feel bad for all of us- I truly do.

      2. So true…when younger, we’re usually too busy trying to individuate from our families (who often teach us to shut up, as women) and get started in adult life.

        I’m not a huge fan of Hillary, but Trump scares the hell out of me. I know people here (NYC area) whom he has cheated in business. That’s enough for me.

      3. I hear ya. I have said it a thousand times, I don’t begrudge anyone their decision..this one requires the true wisdom of Solomon..and I don’t have it… trust me, I’d share if I did!!- HAHA 😏

    2. I’m so tired of hearing about Clinton’s “shrill,” “strident,” and now– the latest– “screechy” voice. Trump bellows and rages and roars– and while many people dislike his tirades, no one actually comments on his VOICE. Why? Because men’s voices are not on the radar, any more than their lack of smiling, lack of make-up, bad hair style etc. are. Can’t you see the double standard you yourself are perpetuating?

      1. I thought we were discussing women.. that’s why I mentioned the most famous woman out there right now. I am fully aware of double standards, AND reality. I used to be involved with drama productions and I routinely talked to the kids about their voices..both pitch and projection. Hillary has moments when the pitch of her voice is not at all pleasing to the ear and it takes the listener’s focus off the content of what she’s actually saying. Other speakers (male as well as female) surely have the same issue..or other issues as well. Our voices are delivery vehicles for our thoughts, ideas and opinions. There are options for speakers in public settings when the crowd gets loud. I’m just not a fan of raising my voice and trying to out scream a large group of people. As far as the other stuff is concerned..It would be interesting to see which candidate’s hair has been critiqued the most..but I personally don’t care about any of that. I want the best candidate to win..and frankly, “best” is not a word I’d use to describe either of these manipulative, multi-millionaires. As I have gotten older, my confidence in voicing my personal thoughts has risen dramatically, and my delivery has changed as well. I would say I am less of a vocal hammer as a direct consequence of being more self assured about my stances. I want you to be drawn to my ideas when I express them..not verbally assaulted by them.

  3. Hello Caitlin, Thank you, as ever, for a great blog post. It is interesting that all the reasons but one you list begin with the words “lack” or “fear”––the one exception being “frustration.” Unfortunately, if a woman overcomes all that lack and fear and speaks up, the end result is often being interrupted and/or ignored––and if they managed to present any worth-while ideas they are stolen. Has happened to me so, so often…

    1. So true!

      I’ve felt that many many times myself as well. My tongue has holes from being bitten repeatedly. It puts us in an impossible position — if we keep jumping back in (even though we’re not at fault) it starts to look weird. It’s all a dominance game.

      Sigh. 🙂

  4. what a great piece. your background and experience and the people in your life encouraged this in you, and for that you are so lucky. in my own life, it was quite the opposite and i was extremely shy for many, many years. over a long period of time, when i had was forced to become my own advocate, i found my voice and have never gone back. when i first began teaching, a first grade student of mine wrote a letter to the editor of the local ann arbor news. her letter was very short but she said that she was against the war because it was hurting children. it was incredibly powerful. i’ve kept it always and have always encouraged my own daughters as well as my students to do the same. this has inspired me to find her letter and write about the power of this. thank you )

    1. I know so many women like you and some who were told to keep silent or that their opinions had less/no value. It’s a terrible thing. We have such wisdom and insight to offer and I wish wish wish more women spoke out on matters of public and economic policy.

      We need to be much deeper embedded in our culture society — audibly! — than we are.

  5. I’m not afraid to speak my mind, but with age I’ve become more aware that you need to be careful (especially in the workplace.) I’ve been burned several times for my vociferousness (is that a word?)

    Here in France, where I’m viewed as a strident, assertive North American feminist, I’ve been fired more than once (in the past) for “insolence” and “insubordination”. So this is one reason why women won’t speak up…for fear of losing their job, which is a pretty good reason.

    Another reason is plain lack of confidence. Others just want harmony. They hate discord and the idea of “rocking the boat”.

    Another reason – and in this country especially, where there’s little notion of “sisterhood” and solidarity – there’s a fear of finding yourself alone. No-one will defend or side with you, that’s a reality. So if you’re gonna go out on a limb and holler or blow the whistle, you have to be super confident in yourself (and believe deeply in your moral values and principles).

    I so admire women (and men) who are like that. Because it’s rare.

    1. It’s true — it’s very culturally determined.I’ve been quite surprised by how timid so many American women seem to be — but in a country with no paid maternity leave and almost no unions and ZERO job security for 90% of workers…I guess people are terrified to offend and lose income.

      I was massively cyber-bullied here by a bunch of women, none of whom had ever met or even spoken to me. There’s almost nothing you can say anymore to anyone without offending someone, so it’s easier to shut up.

      That was…instructive.

  6. I guess the bottom line is that it’s a risk to speak out, and you have to measure that risk. “What could I lose if I speak out?” When the answer is “a lot”, then you’re gonna shut up.

    But we have our blogs!!

    As you can see, I vociferate via my blog. I also like to post pieces celebrating people I admire (because they speak out). Like Ken Loach (you must see his new film) and yesterday, the outspoken Moroccan winner of the Prix Goncourt.

    Blog on!

    1. We’re always at risk of losing something!

      Respect, friendship, the love of someone we trust, well-paid work…the challenge is deciding what we’re willing to lose, if anything, and whether we can sustain that loss. In some cases, staying silent means paying such a high cost to our own ethics and principles, that the hell with it! How much bonsai-ing is anyone willing to do, lifelong out of fear and frustration?

      Having met you in person, I know you have strong opinions (as do I!) and any woman who does is going to have to shut the hell up a lot in order to survive, esp. in a culture you describe.

      Blogs are indeed a great safety valve. 🙂

  7. advisetheworkngirl

    I love this piece of writing. As a student, I never felt my voice needed to be heard. I always felt my opinions and thoughts would be stupid in comparison to men and even other women. I don’t find that I am embarrassed with only men, but the judgement of other women is just as bad.

    1. No!!! 🙂

      That’s a sad way to be in the world…I think speaking out if you know zero about the topic, just to be heard, is unwise (and very male) but why would any man’s opinion be de facto better than ours?!

      Women can be nasty to one another, and I’ve been massively cyber-bullied by them. Whatev. It only reveals their insecurity.

      1. advisetheworkngirl

        My oh my Missy! You are radiating with confidence! Its refreshing:) I am sorry to hear about the cyber bullying. You seem to have moved on quite well from that!

      2. Hey, I live in and work in and compete in NYC publishing/journalism. Frail flowers don’t make it. 🙂

        The cyber-bullying was some nasty shit, for sure. I unfriended a ton of people and am now very, very wary of Trojan Horse FB “friends.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s