IWD: Unlearning the language of silence

6 March 2018

What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.” 

Oprah Winfrey, Golden Globes 2018

Oprah’s 2018 Golden Globes speech was widely praised, even sparking now denied rumours of a potential 2020 presidential run from the American icon. Her speech was made in the context of women speaking up about sexual assault. We have seen the impact of this over the last 12 months with the birth of the #metoo movement (IWD: Generation #: The power of social media in the fight for progress). These courageous women have sparked important conversation, consequences and the start of real change. 

On the eve of International Women’s Day 2018, I want to make the case that the best way we can #PressforProgress in 2018 is to amplify our voices for all to hear.

The importance of speaking up was highlighted to me in a recent conversation with a friend of a friend during a Sunday pub lunch. Let’s call him Mark. Discussing recent issues of sexual harassment and inequality in the news, Mark offered an anecdote about a friend who worked on the trading floor of a large bank. This bank, supposedly, would always ensure a woman reached the final stage of interview for a role on the trading floor but was wary of ever offering the job to women interviewees. The reason? Concern that tensions on the trading floor, which sometimes bubbled over into fisticuffs, would be too much for women and may even spark litigation against the bank.

The anecdote had been offered as a concession, to show that Mark recognised how far we still have to go in our journey to equality. The offering was intended to show Mark was an ally; that he got it. But the part of this conversation I want to draw attention to was his response to my question, ‘Did your friend say anything about this behaviour?’

At this point, Mark scoffed. Of course not! Had his friend spoken up, had he challenged this behaviour, he would have been hampering his own job prospects. Really, Mark was keen to stress, his friend was much like the alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein, unable to speak up for fear of risking their careers.

Now, as you might imagine, by this point I was struggling to maintain civil discourse at a friendly Sunday lunch. But this dialogue was instructive. Because when I stopped and thought about it, I realised that I knew the answer when I asked the question. To be honest, as difficult as this is to acknowledge, I think I would probably get a similar answer from most of my male acquaintances (although perhaps more diplomatically phrased), even those who otherwise think of themselves as allies and even feminists would be reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet on this sort of issue. I would even get a similar answer from some women I know.

But I also know that unless and until more people do speak up against this sort of behaviour, nothing will change.

Public speaking, and fear of the same, is a regular topic of conversation with my female friends. As we have progressed in our diverse careers, the opportunities and pressure to speak in various public settings has increased. This could be anything from speaking up in a work meeting to speaking in front of a formal audience. Now, public speaking is a well-documented phobia, suffered by men and women alike. But there is significant evidence that women are considerably less likely to speak up than their male colleagues. A 2012 study published in the American Political Science Review found that in most mixed groups they observed, women spoke for less than 75% of the time men in the group spoke for.

This should be no surprise when we see how women who use their voices are treated. Hillary Clinton was parodied by her political opponents as ‘Shrill-ery’ and faced criticism across the board for her supposedly high pitched tone of delivery when speaking. The Atlantic magazine did a scientific review of her speeches in light of this sustained criticism and they found that her pitch actually became lower, not higher, over the course of her speeches. In contrast Donald Trump was the one more prone to increasing his pitch throughout the course of a speech. Such is the reaction to women’s voices however, that people believed they heard the opposite of this.

It gets worse. Studies have shown that while men who speak up are often considered more competent, women are often penalised for the same behaviour, labelled brusque or abrasive. By being assertive and outspoken in the workplace, women who are more comfortable speaking up are frequently punished for contravening gender norms that women are warm and nurturing. This perpetuates the gender gap on speaking up.

So, I believe three things to be true –

  • Women’s voices have been suppressed both consciously and through the gender roles we are taught to embrace in society;
     
  • For things to change, someone has to speak up;
     
  • No one else is going to speak up for us, if we see or hear something, we have to get into the habit of saying something!

This will require us to not only be braver in our willingness to speak publicly, but to examine our own unconscious biases when others use their voices. The bias against women who speak up in the work place is one held by women as well as men. We should support and encourage women’s voices, whether they are tentatively dipping their toes into speaking in public or speaking with confidence.

In the run up to International Women’s Day last year, I praised the value of people representing diverse perspectives in key deliberative bodies including the Supreme Court and the House of Commons (IWD: Why we must #BeBoldForChange in politics and the legal profession). Those diverse perspectives are of course of value in all areas of society. But that value will only be realised if those diverse perspectives are given voice. Meghan Markle said it very well recently when she said;

You’ll often hear people say: “We are helping women find their voices.” And I fundamentally disagree with that, because women don’t need to find a voice. They have a voice. They need to be empowered to use it. And people need to be encouraged to listen.”

In 1995 when Hillary Clinton was first lady and already used to gendered comments on her speaking style, on a trip to India, she read a poem a young girl, Anasuya Sengupta, had written –

“Too many women in too many countries speak the same language – of silence…” it began before arguing that women needed both freedom to speak and the power to be heard.

On International Women’s Day 2018, there are few things which could be more effective in our #PressforProgress than for women to have greater freedom to speak and to wield the power which comes from being heard.


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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