I was on a train recently and two women were sitting across from me. They didn’t know each other prior to the journey and I had the pleasure of watching them become friends over the hour. At first, they discussed their families (coincidentally, both were going to visit sick partners in hospital). By the end of the conversation, they were discussing the impact that beauty had on the way they perceived the world and were perceived by it. Watching these two intelligent women debate was fascinating, as one favoured the stance that it was harder to go through the world if you were less attractive and the other, if you were more. I tried not to eavesdrop on their private conversation but when issues of race and gender came into it, I was hooked. Then, in the corner of my eye, I noticed a man to my right trying to catch my attention. I looked over. He grinned, gestured to the women, then held up his hands, opening and closing them as if they were crab claws.
He’d called the women chatterboxes.
I was obviously furious but, unfortunately, also British, so I turned away and ignored him with a scowl on my face. What I wanted to do, though, was to go completely apeshit. Who did this guy think he was? They were talking at an average volume, at an average pace, about serious topics. And it was in private (please ignore the fact I was eavesdropping like a dick)! If two men had been having a similar conversation, can you imagine someone grinning and doing ‘chatterbox hands’? My arse, you can. The fact that he’d tried to engage me also struck me as ridiculous. Why would I, as a woman, join him in belittling two other women for simply talking?
Unfortunately, a lot of people wouldn’t find this situation that ludicrous. “Why,” they’d say, “maybe he’d had enough of hearing females chin-wagging? Haven’t we all?” And then they’d guffaw and slap their thighs, like total shitheads. It’s a long running stereotype that women talk more and, as is the case with most stereotypes, it’s a load of balls. A recent study by Brigham Young University and Princeton showed that during professional meetings, women spoke only 25% of the time, meaning men took up 75% of an average meeting. The study also found that when women were left out of the conversation, it was harder for them to have an effect on decisions and discussions during majority votes on issues. Another study recently discovered that men are more likely to interrupt others during a conversation than women are. This tendency for men to dominate conversation begins during our education – a 2004 study on gender issues at Harvard Law School found that men were 50% more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class, and 144% more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times. I remember had a seminar with the incredible Sara Maitland once, and at the end of the session she asked for questions. After about twenty minutes of Q & A, she said, “Right, I’ve heard enough questions from the men. Have any of the women got any questions? It always surprises me, you know, how often they do, when given the chance to speak.” I hadn’t even noticed that only the men had been confident enough to speak out. After that, every woman in the seminar had something to ask. Since then, I’ve noticed it constantly. Men are raised to believe that their opinions are correct and valuable, and that they should share them. They’re encouraged to be assertive and to speak out. Women, on the other hand, are told they should be modest and passive. I was told at university to “write essays like a man”, that is, to write in definitive sentences and not use phrases like, “I think” and “I believe”. The tutor (who was female) told us that women are taught to second-guess their own opinions and it’s something we need to shake off. I agree.
However, a lifetime of socialisation is difficult to ignore. That’s why I ask you to think about who is talking during a conversation, whether it’s in the classroom, conference room or living room. If you’re a man and the women are getting ignored or interrupted, please speak up on their behalf or create a space for them to express themselves. If you’re a woman, give yourself permission to make your voice heard. Someone might do ‘chatterbox hands’ at you, sure. But each time, it’ll become a little bit easier, and eventually, it’ll feel natural. Only when men and women share conversations 50:50 will women’s issues be heard and change will come about. Because women have been silenced for long enough.