The Feminine Voice
Several weeks ago I attended a couple of conferences in a row. The first was a work conference and the second was a blogging conference. I don’t attend many conferences these days or large meetings. Often for work I am in committee meetings and participants turn to me for expert advice as the do my colleagues around the province.
I work in a field dominated by women and as such the work conference was majority women, by a wide margin. I’m not sure exactly how many people were at the conference, but 100 participants is probably a reasonable guess. I didn’t specifically count how many men were in the room. Generally speaking there was one or possibly two of us per table. Most table had one male. So there were maybe 10 -15 men at the conference.
On the first day I noted that between speakers and commenters we heard no female voices (other than speaker introductions) until mid-afternoon. Once I realized that I made a decision to keep my mouth shut during the sessions. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on and I didn’t want to take up any more verbal space with another male voice. The second day of the conference I discussed what I had observed the first day with the women seated at my table. I considered raising a point before the sessions got started for the day to either ask the other men to keep their comments to a minimum or encourage the women at the conference to speak up. I decided not to say anything in part because the women at my table didn’t seem to have noticed what happened the day before. The balance was better the second day.
I discussed my observations with a colleague who was giving me a ride to the airport. She indicated that the reason she hadn’t asked any questions of the speakers was that she felt they were very thorough and no questions had come to mind. I know she is a strong feminist and so I thought perhaps I was reading too much into what I had observed. I was looking forward to the blogging conference later in the week since I expected it would also be majority women to see what happened.
At the second conference, it was a majority of women again. There were around 90 participants and I think fewer than ten male attendees. our numbers were somewhat bolstered by presence of several male speakers. My experience with a lack of female voices was not replicated. As a result I figured I was seeing something that wasn’t there or maybe I was too busy looking for issues to blog about. I scratched out the question that I had written in my notebook at the conference and decided to leave the issue alone. I had been planning to do some research to see if my observations were backed up by any data out there.
Why Women Talk Less
Then today the data appeared in my Twitter feed. I read a great post on Debuk, an apparently new blog written by Debbie Cameron, a feminist and linguist. She references a book called The Silent Sex. I am going to see if I can get my hands on a copy since I am interested in the topic. It is all about gender and interactions in groups and decision-making models. Part of my university studies were focussed on interpersonal communications so this is right up my alley. It doesn’t seem to be available at my public library. Probably more of an academic library kind of book…
The authors of the book determined in their research that women need to outnumber men 4-to-1 before the women in the room speak as much as the men in the room. (This is the ratio in my house and I definitely get less airtime…) That made me think about the two conferences I had attended. At the work conference there was at least one male at most if not all tables and while I think the ratio was more like 8-to-1 in the room, I wonder if the distribution of men in the room had an impact on the women’s comfort level with speaking. At the blogging conference the med were more spread out and there were a number of tables that were all women. Plus many of the people in the room knew each other from other conferences and from online engagement. At the work conference there were certainly many of us who knew one another, there were also a significant number of people who were new or hadn’t met before.
Making Space for Women
In the article on Debuk, the writer identifies a couple of solutions to help overcome the structural sexual inequality and increase the participation of women.
- Consider the structural make-up of the discussion and participants. What is the gender balance? How are discussions facilitated?
- Support women who speak. Interrupt the men who cut off the women and encourage them to allow the speaker to finish. Both women and men can do this, which will help to make space for female voices.
I will add one more. I and my fellow men could shut our traps periodically to create space and airtime for women. The next conference I attend I will raise the issue if I see the same discrepancy in male/female contributions to the discussion and encourage the other men in the room to back off and the women to speak up now that I know this is more than just my experience one day at a conference.
I particularly like the last line in her post and I am going to replicate it here.
“Masculinity and femininity are both products of the same oppressive system. And we will never be able to change it if women can’t make their voices heard.”