Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A reader shares: Returning to the Stage...After Harrassment

(Editor's note: Cate Huston is an engineer at Google UK and a reader of the blog who attended my London and Oxford workshops on women and public speaking in March and April. She also sought and received coaching from me for the talk she describes in this post--which first appeared on her blog---and kindly gave me permission to reprint it here for you. And when she says "it went really well," that means that she was one of just two speakers that day whose audience scores were higher than the norm, and was highly praised by the organizers.

Huston has connected the dots between two issues I follow closely: The apparent lack of women speakers on programs all over the world, in all professions, and the underlying conditions that undermine their confidence, particularly harrassment, the one we don't like to discuss. Too often, women are told the "confidence gap" is internal, something they should fix in themselves. This post helps us see that, in fact, a little discouragement goes a long way in keeping women from the advantages of public speaking. She argues that it is rational for women to refuse to pay the price of harrassment in order to speak, and I can't disagree with that. Every speaker needs to make her own choices. I'm glad, however, that she is taking up speaking once again, and speaking out here and on her blog about this important issue.)

I stopped public speaking at the end of 2011. And, 6 months into 2012 I finally wrote about why. I wrote about being more intentional with my time, wanting to focus on more technical talks, and – in the vaguest terms, not really calling it what it was – about being harassed on Twitter as a result of speaking in public.

There was a lovely comment about a talk I gave on that post (thanks, kind stranger), but I had forgotten it was there. Know what I hadn’t forgotten?

this bitch is so dumb

That, I remembered.

I gave more technical talks, internally. Eventually I started going to safer spaces – female space – and talking about women. I introduced other women, women brave enough to speak about their work, their opinions, their experiences.

I, was quiet.

It’s interesting, the use of the word dumb, an ableist epithetic for someone who can’t speak. Who doesn’t have a voice. He used it, to silence mine. To quiet me. There’s a long and proud history of silencing women, that Mary Beard spoke about so eloquently. The refrain goes, that we talk too much, that what we say is driven by emotion and so inherently untrustworthy.

And yet. It is men who have this reaction to women who dare to speak their minds in public. Whether they Tweet it, blog it, or speak it into the microphone. I don’t pretend to understand it, but it seems like it comes from a place of fear – a fear of an equal world, where women have a voice and use it.

Is fear not an emotion?

Not all women
I went to see a comedy show with a friend. There were four white male comedians. I observed, afterwards, that it would have been nice to see a woman (or person of colour) on stage.

My friend tends to agree with me, but qualifies it, tells me, and I paraphrase here for anonymity, “There was a woman last year. She wasn’t very funny“.

Men are allowed this incredible luxury, that of being individuals, allowed to speak for themselves and not their entire sex. Allowed to represent their own talent, humour, lack thereof. No wider judgement required.

Standing up invites a certain amount of judgment. It invites judgement about the delivery, and the content and opinions that are offered. For women though, this judgement on women as an entity is an additional overhead.

Then there is the judgement on their “fuckability” (as with danah boyd). Yes, every so often the male comedian gets heckled for his appearance, usually his hair (or lack thereof) but male politicians, male executives, are above criticism about their physical appearance… in a way that women are not.

As a society, the worth of women is defined so much more by her appearance, and until we allow women to be worthwhile citizens regardless of how well they conform to conventional standards of beauty, this will continue.

Rational fears
I keep hearing the argument that despite these additional taxes on women who dare to have an opinion in public, women should speak up anyway.

I disagree. I applaud the women who do speak in public, particularly those like Adria Richards who returned after the kinds of harassment (threats to livelihood and to her physical safety) that I have no words strong enough to express my disgust for. They are incredible.

But, when that is the risk, the price, for speaking up in public, I argue that it is rational to refuse to pay it. Amongst feminists in the tech industry that I know on Twitter, a certain level of harassment is expected. It’s appalling, but being appalled doesn’t mean it isn’t normal. Being normal, doesn’t mean that these women get used to it.

Caroline Criado-Perez famously pointed out that “Don’t Feed The Trolls”, that well known refrain, is victim blaming. She is right.

A few days after that first series of tweets, as the loop that played them in my head was starting to slow, there was another one. I decided it was better not to know, than to make a connection. What would I do? The organiser had already demonstrated that they would at best do nothing, and this was probably the result of them having made things worse. After that one, though, I felt physically threatened.

There is a lot of talk about code of conducts, and making sure that women are represented at events, but we are not there yet. And we remain in a place where harassment is normal. Where harassment is expected. If I know that the likely outcome from me speaking my mind in public, online or off, what might my reaction be? To be very careful about what I say, and where. Or to opt out altogether.

Being brave
Approaching two years later, I finally took a look at my career goals and realised public speaking had to be part of The Plan again. I put together a talk, and submitted it to conferences. It got accepted. I agreed to give it at another event. It was on the plan. It was agreed to. It was happening. But, everything was nicely, abstractly, far away.

It loomed closer and I became more, and more anxious.

this bitch is so dumb

I remembered it, more clearly. I thought about it in a way that I had managed not to, since it happened. I thought about how badly the organiser had handled it, and wished I had stood up for myself more.

But of course I wanted to be nice. Didn’t want it to seem like I wasn’t OK with criticism. Didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it. Didn’t want to seem emotional.

I took the main thing within my control seriously – how prepared I was. I gave two internal practise talks, both went well. I published my notes on my blog. Denise, of The Eloquent Woman ran two UK events, I attended both (12).

I fixated on what to wear.

I had a one on one coaching session with Denise. We  went over my message, tightened it up a bit, put together three points for an introduction. Talked about managing my energy levels (and terror!) as I was speaking later in the day. It was incredibly helpful to talk these things through, and I decided not to worry about my arrival time, meaning that I could wake up naturally and miss rush hour, even if that also meant I missed hearing one of my friends speak.

It went really well

Admittedly, it was a women’s event, a safer audience, but it was the largest talk I have given in a long time. The curse, if not broken completely, has been damaged. I reminded myself, that I can do it.

This bitch is no longer dumb.

(Photo of Cate Huston speaking to the BCSWomen Ada Lovelace Colloquium by Anne-Marie Imafidon. Used by permission.)

Huston participated in my recent workshop in Oxford, England and on May 15, I'll be convening another session of Be The Eloquent Woman in Washington, DC. It's a subversive new workshop that helps women executives and public officials learn how women speakers are perceived and how to turn those expectations on their heads with confidence, content and credibility. Go here to read how the first workshop went and what participants had to say.

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