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Women and Public Speaking

May 25, 2014

You will think I have been very lazy in not putting any posts up recently but I have been preparing for a history exhibition at Worfield on June 14th and 15th and since Christmas have been able to think of little else. Incidentally, have you noticed how ‘so’ has begun to preface many people’s statements at the moment? I was tempted to start this post in the same way but tongue in cheek. These over-used words and phrases (another is ‘going forward,’) drive me nearly as bonkers as the upward inflexion at the end of a sentence which is not a question. Sometimes that makes what the person is saying totally unintelligible.

This post was inspired by a talk given by Mary Beard about whether there is something hard-wired into men which makes them less likely to listen to what a woman says. What she was talking about was speech and not the written word and it is an interesting question. Mary Beard referred to a brilliant Punch cartoon in which five men and a woman are in a meeting. The chairman says ‘That’s an excellent suggestion Miss Triggs, I wonder if one of the men would like to make it?’

As I reflected. I was wondering if this had been my experience, too. I think the answer is complicated by age, ethnicity, where one lives and many other factors besides, but this is my experience. When I was in my twenties it felt almost a positive advantage to be a woman. Employers wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing in terms of equal opportunities but industry was very much a man’s world and I was an outsider and treated as such. One managing director said to me,”You have to understand that you are not as intelligent as the men.” At a meeting  I was asked to talk through a project so that everyone knew the progress towards the deadline, I could think of nothing to say and stumbled and stuttered my way through the calendar. My abysmal performance was laughed about for weeks. Proof that I couldn’t speak in public and was pretty stupid, too!

As I have got older my confidence has increased, for a lot of this is to do with confidence, but a male audience still seems to have that immediate response of being patronising at best and downright rude at the worst. Recently I did a talk at a local historical society and after my talk, the cheque (for £25) was almost thrown at me. It might not have been my finest hour but it certainly didn’t deserve that. I determined there and then that I would never do another talk.

Last year I contacted a man to see if he could help me put right some of the issues I was having with a big project. As the client I did not expect the response I got. It was in email form but after tearing apart what I had done (all of which I knew,) he wrote, ‘Have I made you cry yet?’ The next question was ‘Still want to talk?’ Not to you, certainly, I thought. Feedback is one thing ,insulting comments about making me cry are simply not acceptable. So why do they still happen? Would this man have written that to another man? I doubt it. What did I do? Ignored the email and moved on, but each time I get more and more wary of exposing myself to male feedback.

Two years ago I was invited to take part in a selection process for start-up support for a new company. I spent about three months preparing for this to make sure that I didn’t fail. As I had been invited to take part I assumed I had a fair chance of success if I did my homework. About five minutes into the interview, one of the six people solemnly declared that my project was like collecting underpants in South Park. Everyone laughed heartily and the man glowed with pride at his coup. The decision was made. I had failed and lost a golden opportunity to present my business because a man made an insulting joke. I could have crawled under the door.  What did I do? I came out  and sobbed my heart out. Humiliation isn’t nice.

But the response that Mary Beard was talking about, that male default setting, is apparent in informal speech as well as formal situations and this is what makes the process so insidious, pervasive and hard to tackle. A male friend was telling me on the phone about his daughter and I responded by offering my thoughts on her problems. Immediately there was laughter, not the laughter in which one can join in but a jeering laughter which doesn’t convey the message, ‘That is the funniest thing I have heard,’ but ‘That is the most stupid thing I have heard.’ How did I respond? This was before I heard Mary Beard but I picked up the message clearly and said. ‘You think I am stupid but I am not.’ Was that the right response on my part? For the purposes of self preservation, yes, for the purposes of communication between men and women, no,. There have been no further conversations.

I have many good friends who are male and whose default settings are definitely not that women are stupid but I do believe that men need to be much more careful how they deal with women in business and life in general. Kid gloves we don’t want or need but a level playing field, surely that is not too much to ask for.



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