Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The speech I wish she'd given: The messy side of women's issues

If you've spent enough time in your profession, you've been on one of those panels about "where are the women?" in your industry, or about women's issues in general. But I'm wondering whether you've had the experience chef Gabrielle Hamilton describes in chapter 16 of her tour de force memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. She gave her remarks in her head, but never said them out loud, until the writing of this book.

Hamilton, the chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York City, describes the arc of emotion and thoughts she went through while traveling to and participating in the panel at the Culinary Institute of America.  She starts out dismissive of the need for such a discussion. "Incredibly, it never goes away, this question about women," she says. I've heard that exasperated sigh from many other women speakers.

Hamilton convincingly captures what goes through the mind of a speaker on panel day, from her baby's oatmeal stain on her sweater to the calls from her business about how to handle things in her absence. She shares just as much about how the panel got under her fingernails. Hamilton at first thinks of herself and her fellow panelists as allied against the audience, so over the 'woman question,' nothing left to say.

Then a young woman in the audience asks whether it's okay to cry, setting Hamilton off on a private recollection of how she avoided crying in front of others at all costs. In fact, she mulls, it wasn't until she finally owned her own restaurant that she "put to bed" that 'woman' question. She realized:
...all through my entire work life, I had been working a double shift....that of constantly, vigilantly figuring out and calibrating my place in that kitchen with those guys to make a space for myself that was bearable and viable. Should I wear pink clogs or black steel-toe work shoes? Lipstick or Chapstick? Work double hard, double fast, double strong, or keep pace with the average Joe? Swear like a line cook or giggle like a girl? 
During her silent moments on the panel, thinking over those issues, she describes feeling a distance from the other panelists, and more closeness with the audience, after all:
To her question, my sister panelists gave peppy, cheerful “You can do it!!” kind of crap answers....I thought of telling them how changing a diaper reminds me, every time, of trussing a chicken....How labeling every school lunch bag, granola bar, juice box, extra sweater, and nap blanket with permanent Sharpie is like what we’ve been doing every day for thirty years, labeling the foods in our walk-ins....I wanted to interrupt my fellow panelists now going on about how women cook better than men, and how they’re faster and cleaner and smarter, and just tell this story to the young woman in the fifteenth row.
But she didn't tell it, not out loud, at least. This experience reminds me, once again, that it's much easier in many respects to write down the difficult topic than to speak about it out loud in front of an audience. Perhaps that's even more true when it involves pulling back the curtain on that double-shift you've been working as a woman in a male-dominated field. The retelling of this panelist's experience made me wonder how many of us defensively dismiss the need for panels about women's issues, then find out the hard way why we need them, after all.

This chapter tantalizes me with the speech I wish she'd given. I'd have loved hearing her, out loud and extemporaneous, comparing diapering to trussing a chicken. I can see the Sharpies, the oatmeal on her sweater that day, and feel the inability to cry until you owned the restaurant and had an office in which to do it. The details make the anguish real. She could have blown that panel into the next century, or given the audience a truer picture of this one. And I like to think her listeners might have felt just a little less pressure to make everything seem smooth and perfect in their own lives had she done so. That's why I recommend, when you're finding your voice as a speaker, that you tell the stories you think are too difficult to tell, because "if you can bring yourself to share them in a speech, you’ll have the most compelling content and a riveting voice." Don't get me wrong: This is compelling and riveting, as written. But I yearn to hear it out loud and in person, a risk she chose not to take.

This put me very much in mind of a similar "wise women in public relations" panel I was on, where one brave audience member asked a question very different from those about using social media or owning your own business. She wanted help with being sexually harrassed by a client of her male-owned PR firm, and managed to bring that up in front of 45 people. So now I'm wondering: If the audience of young women can do the hard work of serving up the uncomfortable and difficult questions, frankly and openly, can the senior women in any profession bring themselves to answer in kind? I hope so, but suspect that many speakers are self-censoring in this way. As Seth Godin reminds us, "Just imagine how much you'd get done if you stopped actively sabotaging your own work." In this case, I think part of our work should be honesty when we're on panels like this one, dished out with a little knowing humor where appropriate, in describing and confirming reality for the next generation.

Is there a speech you wish you'd given when you had the chance, but didn't? Have you silently or openly dissed women's panels?  Do you pull your punches when talking about difficult women's issues? Do you think she should have shared her thoughts? Go here and choose audio excerpt #4 to hear Hamilton read an excerpt from this chapter. And get the book--it's a compelling read.

(Photo of the line for brunch at Hamilton's restaurant Prune from Three Points Kitchen's photostream on Flickr)

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