By Caitlin Kelly
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?