Why don’t women speak up?

By Caitlin Kelly

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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?

Doing something difficult

By Caitlin Kelly

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Time to explore!

It might be emotional — coming out to your family or while transitioning at work.

Or standing up, finally, to a bully or withdrawing from a toxic narcissist.

Or learning how to discuss a tough topic with someone you love.

Or struggling to reach rapprochement after estrangement.

Or visiting a friend who is dying and attending their funeral, making sure their survivors have the support they’ll need afterward.

It might be political –– switching allegiance after decades, maybe generations, of voting for one party and one set of principles.

Or door-knocking and phone-banking to try to get every possible voter to the polls for this crucial election.

Or choosing not to vote at all.

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It might be physical — going through chemo, trying to lose (a lot of) weight, trying to stick consistently to a healthy eating and exercise plan.

Trying a new-to-you sport, maybe with a buddy.

Maybe committing to a daily/weekly routine.

Or getting the eye exam/dental checkup/skin check/colonoscopy/mammogram/physical you know you need and keep putting off because…ugh.

(Since late May, I’ve been carefully eating much less 2 days/week, [750 calories] plus consistently exercising. Fun? Not so much. But loving the results!)

It might be financial — living on a very strict budget to finally kill off your credit card debt or student loans or a mortgage.

Or asking for a raise or arguing intelligently for your value as a freelancer in a tight-fisted market.

Or really carefully reviewing your savings and investments, if you have some, to make sure your hard-earned money is working as hard as you are.

It might mean taking on an extra job, or two, to accumulate some emergency savings.

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It might be spiritual — leaving a faith community that no longer feels (as) welcoming, looking for another one.

Or maybe another faith entirely.

Or none.

Maybe it’s trying a silent retreat or daily meditation.

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She didn’t win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

It might be intellectual — choosing to try a new way of working or thinking or reading/listening/watching that challenges you. that pushes your brain in another direction.

Maybe you’ll finally try to learn a new language, or a new skill or teach or tutor someone else.

 

Whatever the decision, it means making a choice. Shedding a prior behavior or set of habits, which only gets more and more challenging the older we get and more attached to those behaviors as the best (or most familiar) way through the world.

We’re blessed beyond measure if any of these choices are indeed choices, not sudden and unexpected terrors we have to face, let alone broke and alone.

Whichever new/scary direction you choose — as we all must if we’re to have a hope of significant growth in our lifetimes (and over and over!) — you may sit on the edge of that metaphorical cliff and think….nope! Nope! NOPE!

Pack a parachute! (Cupcakes? Liquor? A stuffed animal? A supportive friend?)

I hate the phrase “comfort zone” as if its limits were clearly demarcated and immutable.

How about “Here be dragons”, the phrase that once marked ancient maps of the world, indicating places that were unknown or unexplored?

HBD, kids, HBD.