The Words Every Woman Should Know
The following article first appeared on Role/Reboot.
“Stop interrupting me.”
“I just said that.”
“No explanation needed.”
In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won for being polite. My brother, on the other hand, was considered the class comedian. We were very typically socialized as a “young lady” and a “boy being a boy.” Globally, childhood politeness lessons are gender asymmetrical. We socialize girls to take turns, listen more carefully, not curse, and resist interrupting in ways we do not expect boys to. Put another way, we generally teach girls subservient habits and boys to exercise dominance.
I routinely find myself in mixed-gender environments (life) where men interrupt me. Now that I’ve decided to try and keep track, just out of curiosity, it’s quite amazing how often it happens. It’s particularly pronounced when other men are around.
This irksome reality goes along with another—men who make no eye contact. For example, a waiter who only directs information and questions to men at a table, or the man last week who simply pretended I wasn’t part of a circle of five people (I was the only woman). We’d never met before, and barely exchanged 10 words, so it couldn’t have been my not-so-shrinking-violet opinions.
These two ways of establishing dominance in conversation, frequently based on gender, go hand-in-hand with this last one: A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion.
After I wrote about the gender confidence gap recently, of the 10 items on a list, the one that resonated the most was the issue of whose speech is considered important. In sympathetic response to what I wrote, a person on Twitter sent me a cartoon in which one woman and five men sit around a conference table. The caption reads, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” I don’t think there is a woman alive who has not had this happen.
The cartoon may seem funny, until you realize exactly how often it seriously happens. And—as in the cases of Elizabeth Warren or say, Brooksley Born—how broadly consequential the impact can be. When you add race and class to the equation the incidence of this marginalization is even higher.
This suppressing of women’s voices, in case you are trying to figure out what Miss Triggs was wearing or drinking or might have said to provoke this response, is what sexism sounds like.
These behaviors, the interrupting and the over-talking, also happen as the result of difference in status, but gender rules. For example, male doctors invariably interrupt patients when they speak, especially female patients but patients rarely interrupt doctors in return. Unless the doctor is a woman. When that is the case, she interrupts far less and is herself interrupted more. This is also true of senior managers in the workplace. Male bosses are not frequently talked over or stopped by those working for them, especially if they are women; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates.
This preference for what men have to say, supported by men and women both, is a variant on “mansplaining.” The word came out of an article by writer Rebecca Solnit, who explained that the tendency some men have to grant their own speech greater import than a perfectly competent woman’s is not a universal male trait, but the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.”
Solnit’s tipping point experience really did take the cake. She was talking to a man at a cocktail party when he asked her what she did. She replied that she wrote books, and she described her most recent one, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The man interrupted her soon after she said the word Muybridge and asked, “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” He then waxed on, based on his reading of a review of the book, not even the book itself, until finally a friend said, “That’s her book.” He ignored that friend (also a woman) and she had to say it more than three times before “he went ashen” and walked away. If you are not a woman, ask any woman you know what this is like, because it is not fun and happens to all of us.
In the wake of Larry Summers’ “women can’t do math” controversy several years ago, scientist Ben Barres wrote publicly about his experiences, first as a woman and later in life, as a male. As a female student at MIT, Barbara Barres was told by a professor after solving a particularly difficult math problem, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” When several years after, as Ben Barres, he gave a well-received scientific speech, he overhead a member of the audience say, “His work is much better than his sister’s.”
Most notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
I’ve had teenage boys, irritatingly but hysterically, excuse what they think is “lack of understanding” to [my] “youthful indiscretion.” Last week as I sat in a cafe, a man in his 60′s stopped to ask me what I was writing. I told him, a book about gender and media and he said, “I went to a conference where someone talked about that a few years ago. I read a paper about it a few years ago. Did you know that car manufacturers use slightly denigrating images of women to sell cars? I’d be happy to help you.” After I suggested, smiling cheerily, that the images were beyond denigrating and definitively injurious to women’s dignity, free speech, and parity in culture he drifted off.
It’s not hard to fathom why so many men tend to assume they are great and that what they have to say is more legitimate. It starts in childhood and never ends. Parents interrupt girls twice as often and hold them to stricter politeness norms. Teachers engage boys, who correctly see disruptive speech as a marker of dominant masculinity, more often and more dynamically than girls.
As adults, women’s speech is granted less authority. We aren’t thought of as able critics or as funny. Men speak more, more often, and longer than women in mixed groups (classrooms, boardrooms, legislative bodies, expert media commentary and, for obvious reasons religious institutions.) Indeed, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees, and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached. That’s why, as researchers summed up, “Having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice.”
Even in movies and television, male actors engage in more disruptive speech and garner twice as much speaking and screen time as their female peers. This is by no means limited by history or to old media but is replicated online. Listserve topics introduced by men have a much higher rate of response and on Twitter, people retweet men two times as often as women.
The best part though is that we are socialized to think women talk more. Listener bias results in most people thinking that women are hogging the floor when men are actually dominating. Linguists have concluded that much of what is popularly understood about women and men being from different planets, verbally, confuses “women’s language” with “powerless language.”
There are, of course, exceptions that illustrate the role of gender and not sex. I, for example, have a very funny child who regularly engages in simultaneous speech, interrupts, and randomly changes topics. If you read a script of one of our typical conversations, you would probably guess she’s a boy based on the fact that her speech habits are what we think of as “masculine.” She’s more comfortable with overt displays of assertiveness and confidence than most girls. It’s hard to balance making sure she keeps that confidence with teaching her to be polite. However, excessive politeness norms for girls, expected to set an example for boys, have real impact on women who are, as we constantly hear, supposed to override their childhood socialization and learn to talk like men to succeed (learn to negotiate, demand higher pay, etc.).
People often ask me what to teach girls or what they themselves can do. “What can I do if I encounter sexism? It’s hard to say anything, especially at school.” I tell them to practice these words, every day:
“Stop interrupting me,” “I just said that,” and “No explanation needed.”
It will do both boys and girls a world of good.