Monday, November 22, 2010

If I were speaking @TEDWomen, here's what I'd say about the future of women and girls

I'm not speaking at TEDWomen, the conference on how women and girls are reshaping the future. But if I were, here's what I'd say:

Let's reshape the future of women and girls by making it easier for them to speak up.

A lot of people have reacted to this conference by saying "we shouldn't need TEDWomen" and that they find it offensive, a way to put women speakers in a ghetto, or help we should reject.  But I think we do need TEDWomen, as long as we're still repeating four ancient and durable myths about women and public speaking--and keeping them off programs.  I'm here to ask you to stop spreading those myths, which have been hanging around for centuries. I'm here to change how we operate when it comes to women and public speaking. But first, a little his-tory lesson.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson has spent much of her career looking at eloquence and public speech. She sums it up this way:  "History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet."  From the days of ancient Greece and Rome right into this century, women who attempt public speaking have had a steep uphill climb. Aristotle thought women should not exert their minds, lest they risk their childbearing abilities.  Some effective woman speakers in that day were considered androgynous--they couldn't possibly be women if they spoke well.  Centuries later, men would accuse Sojourner Truth of being a man--it was impossible for her to speak so movingly as a women, they said.

The women who launched America's effort to get the vote for women did so in part because they could not speak at conferences to which they'd been invited as delegates. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best-seller of her time, went on a book tour and in some places, watched her husband read her speech while she had to sit in a gallery.

Throughout our history and around the world, women who were silent and refrained from speaking in public were praised as chaste, womanly, holy, sober and appropriate. Women who spoke or spoke up, in contrast, were whores, witches, bitches, shrill, scolds, hysterics and nags. Those are slurs we still use today about talkative women, but they are centuries old.  All that name-calling had one goal: To get women to be quiet.  But if you think the examples I just shared are outdated--that's so 1673--let me share their modern counterparts:
  • Social media researcher Danah Boyd was presenting a keynote speech to a major technology conference with the Twitter stream of audience comments behind her as she spoke. That's how we know what men in the audience were thinking, because some of them posted tweets speculating what it would be like to "do" her -- that's the polite version -- with their comments in full view of everyone but the speaker. The organizers took the projection down, then put it back up when audience members objected.  Later, the men removed their comments, but the damage was done. 
  • We're not doing any better when it comes to visible role models of women as respected speakers. While there are female news anchors and reporters, the sources and pundits that they interview are primarily male.  That's true on news outlets like Politico, NPR, the Sunday morning television public affairs shows and most op-ed pages in newspapers around the United States, according to studies done as recently as this year.
  • We're ignoring women when they do speak up--and taking credit for their ideas a few minutes later.  Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz -- two of the most powerful women in the U.S. -- both have said publicly in recent months that this happens to them all the time. 
It was no surprise to me when linguist Deborah Tannen started describing how men prefer "report-talk" -- presenting results publicly to a group -- and women prefer "rapport-talk," or intimate one-on-one conversations. When we have such a strong history of resisting women speakers in public, what other choice would women have but specializing in one-on-one conversations?

Then there's public speaking, always daunting. Let's face it: Public speaking is an act of boldness and audacity, wrapped in three dimensions, with all the volume, movement, eye contact and physicality that's lacking when we restrict ourselves to written, rather than spoken words. Trust me, it takes a lot of nerve to get on a big stage like this one.

But it's more than bravado. A speaker can reach out and touch you, physically as well as emotionally. You can ask her questions, and hear her answers, something no book can do. And it's almost impossible to do anonymously, which makes it more dangerous than writing...one reason, I believe, that we have far more women writers we can point to with pride than women speakers.  Just as learning to read has been the ticket to advancement for millions around the world, learning to speak, and speak effectively--and getting the chance to do so--is an even more powerful path to advancement.

Maybe that's why, even today, we continue to spread four myths about women and public speaking.  These durable myths are repeated by men and women.  I'll bet, once you hear them, that you'll recognize them--not just because you've heard them, but because you've repeated them. 

And that's why I'm here today: To bust these myths, and to ask you to share that new knowledge with others once you leave here today.  You're about to see dozens of women and men speaking with heart and inspiration and insight.  We don't use these myths to silence men, so let's all agree to stop using them to silence women. Here they are:
  1. Women talk more than men do. This one has been used for years to embarrass women into silence. Researchers say that men and women describe the gap in detail, and everyone thinks the gap is huge--some estimates in popular culture say that women speak 20,000 words a day, but men speak just 7,000. Here's reality: Research shows that women and men speak about the same number of words every day, on average: 16,000.
  2. We can't find any women qualified to be speakers. This is one way women are challenged and put on the defensive in program committee meetings or when they seek speaking gigs. It's not a numbers issue: Even in professions where women dominate, they often are still in the minority as speakers on professional society conference programs, research shows. Historically, efforts to keep women from speaking in public were blatant and noticeable; today, it may have gone underground, but it's still a formidable barrier. If you need to find some great women speakers, start right here and network all around you.
  3. Women get ignored in meetings because they aren't as good at men at speaking up. In fact, women can be just as effective as men in communicating, yet their points are more frequently ignored--or claimed by others as their own.  A string of studies has shown that women are responded to more negatively than men when they speak up. This myth belies an underlying attitude that's especially tough to shake.
  4. It's women's speaking style that sets them back--they're too emotional and not tough enough. This myth has pushed many women in public life into mimicking a traditional male style of speaking that's louder, more forceful and strident, and less emotional--even though that strong preference for one-on-one connections makes women especially well-suited to connect with an audience  Observers note that this is a double-edge sword for women speakers. Ironically, women who are discredited in other ways can't afford to adopt what may be seen as a weak speaking style--which takes a natural advantage away from them. 
That's my list--just four myths, easy for you to remember, difficult for women who want to speak to overcome. If each of you will stop repeating them...correct your colleagues when they repeat these myths...and better yet, set about making it easier for women and girls to speak and speak up, we may not need TEDWomen in the years to come.

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