The Power to Speak

I began my Educon experience Saturday morning with first, a session on feminism and second, a session on race.   Those two conversations became a thread for me throughout the conference.  I kept talking to people about them, and I’m still talking about them today.

As someone who’s been teaching at all-women’s educational institutions for the last 12 years, and as a women, feminism is obviously very important to me.  It’s colored my life since I can remember, but I’m still striving to practice feminism well.  Things change constantly and feminism has evolved to meet the needs of modern women and others who find themselves oppressed by a patriarchal system.

But, damn, it’s hard, and it’s complicated.  One example came when I attended Chris Lehmann‘s session on distributed leadership.  It was a packed room, so I stood in the back, basically directly in Chris’s line of sight.  I found myself among mostly men in my smaller.  There were maybe 10 of us and only 3 of us were women.  But the room as a whole was fairly evening distributed.  Chris’s style is to set the foundation, then ask a question, have us discuss in small groups and then share more broadly.  At some point, Chris pointed out that he’d noticed mostly men were responding to his questions (yes, Chris attended the feminism session).  I then tweeted this:

And during the smaller group conversations that followed, Chris came over and said something like, “We point it out and we keep trying.”  Yes, yes, we do.

Later that evening, Chris and I talked about this again.  Chris made a huge effort to call on more women, even those that didn’t have their hands up.  And I made an effort to say more, and I think some other women did, too.  I explained how hard it was, even for me, someone who enjoys talking and generally isn’t afraid to speak in front of people, to speak out.  I just told him all the crazy things that go through my head, that I have to push out of my head, just to say something.  They include, but are not limited to:

  • If I say something, I’ll be talking too much (whether I’ve spoken at all or not)
  • What I’m thinking is stupid and if I say it out loud, people will be thinking how stupid it is, how stupid *I* am
  • What I have to say isn’t important
  • When I say something, I may pay for it in some way in the form of negative comments now or later
  • Judging, lots of judging

It sucks.  I relayed my conversation with Chris to someone else down the table who had been in both sessions.  He told me that right after Chris pointed out the issue, the guy next to him said, great, no white guys will talk now.  But, actually, this guy told me, the very next person to speak after a woman Chris called on was a white guy and then another white guy–because they don’t wait to be called on.

In the feminism session, we talked a little about how to shut down that dynamic in the classroom, but it’s clear that even among adults, this is a big problem.  Even among, I should say, a group of adults who generally are sensitive to these issues and who want to do the right thing.

What do we do? We sometimes do what Chris did, point it out, try to correct it.  We can’t put it all on women, but women should do their best to speak more.  Making it more normal can help.  And, of course, make the balance of men and women more equal.

And this is kind of the small stuff.  There’s equal pay and rape and all kinds of other things to deal with, but we have to start somewhere.

And if you want to read more about the speaking issue, here are some great articles, one as recent as two weeks ago.  So yeah, we’re still dealing with it.

Study on why women don’t speak up 

Why Women Stay Quiet at Work

Women Don’t talk more than Men 

2 Replies to “The Power to Speak”

  1. This is a really challenging issue for me. When I am in a group of mostly or all men, I (think I) have a good sense of how much space I am taking up relative to others in the group: not much. I generally have to interrupt to be heard. I’m not a quiet person on that front, so while it’s frustrating that I have to, I don’t have a problem interjecting.

    When I’m in a mixed group, or groups of mostly/all women, things get hazy quickly. I worry often about unintentionally replicating the patterns I’ve learned for spaces where men are, in spaces where men aren’t. I’m so used to having to interrupt to be heard that I have a hard time dialing that back when I don’t really need it anymore.

    Every meeting should have a person in charge of taking notes, and a second person in charge of keeping track of who is talking, and for how long. I personally would love to know from a more objective perspective where I fit. Should I step up more? Do I need to focus on stepping back? Or am I doing an okay job?

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