Why women talk less

Debbie Cameron, feminist author and editor at feminist mag Trouble & Strife, draws out the issues here in a very explanatory way.

Some of us have observed that the solution to women’s contributions being interrupted more, and signal-boosted and valued less, is not to admonish women to be more ‘assertive’. Where we are already speaking, and are treated as aggressive for rebuking others for interrupting us, this treats us as the problem, and so adds to our difficulties. It is important to note that liberal solutions along those lines are in fact individualistic, in regarding individuals’ problems as their own failures. (In fact such solutions are often made in patronising, sexist ways, such as when people make a display of ‘encouraging’ women to do things which they are already in the process of doing. This functions as a social suggestion that the woman is not strong/capable/talented, but requires ‘encouragement’.)

Cameron’s points also show the deficiencies in models of female oppression which portray it and female leadership as being problems

largely of female psychology or culture – as a failure to ‘be strong’. Models which are still quite prevalent in socialist groups:

‘In a study of same-sex group discussions among secondary school pupils, Judith Baxter found that boys who emerged as leaders were able to do so because other boys deferred to their suggestions, echoed their comments and laughed at their jokes. Among girls there were individuals who behaved in similar ways to the dominant boys, but their attempts to take the lead were less successful, because they were not supported by other girls. In fact, they were actively resisted and resented. The class teacher told Baxter that girls did not accept other girls’ authority, whereas no one had a problem with boys taking charge. []
‘These girls were policing one another’s behaviour in accordance with the cultural norm which says authority and power are male prerogatives. Consequently they were reproducing, in an all-female group, the same resistance to authoritative female speech that disadvantages women in mixed-sex interactions.Social media discussions often unwittingly display these dynamics, where posts by men about feminism are contributed to by both men and women, and feminist posts by women are paid less attention to.’

Social media discussions often unwittingly display these dynamics, where posts by men about feminism are contributed to by both men and women, and feminist posts by women are paid less attention to.

language: a feminist guide

This week on Newsnight, Evan Davis talked to three women about all-male panels—a subject made topical by the recent popularity of a tumblr set up to name and shame them. Why, he asked, are women so often un- or under-represented in public forums? Are they reluctant to put themselves forward? Are they deterred by the adversarial nature of the proceedings?

The women offered some alternative suggestions. Women don’t get asked, or if they do it’s assumed you only need one. Women aren’t seen as experts, unless the subject is a ‘women’s issue’. The age-old prejudice against women speaking in public means that any woman who dares to voice her opinions can expect to be deluged with abuse and threats.

But while all-male panels are obviously a problem, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Just ensuring that women are represented on a panel does not guarantee their voices will…

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