Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ladies, Speak Up!

While in school,  I was usually never afraid of offering my opinion on a subject that I felt passionate about.  After thinking,  I would quietly raise my hand and poetically offer my thoughts.

Hah!  I wish.  Usually,  I chose to not speak unless my heart was racing so hard that I had to stammer out my piece.  Once I was finished,  I wouldn't speak for a week.  I always envied those who could state an opinion eloquently and without "ummms" and "sos."  After much reflection,  I realized that most of those speakers happened to be men.

Then I asked myself,  why were the men more eloquent.  More importantly,  why were the men not afraid to speak up?

Recently Mr. B's English professor told the men to shut up and the ladies to speak up.  She informed them [the ladies] that their opinions were needed as much as the boys.  She then related a story.

She described that in one class full of boys, with only 3 girls, she rarely heard from the ladies.  In an effort to get more participation from them, she summoned them to her desk after the bell rang and told them to write her a 1 page essay explaining why they didn't speak in class.  Their participation grade would be determined by this essay.

After receiving the essays back,  she found a disturbing trend.  The women felt uncomfortable speaking up because they felt their opinions had to be flawless and particularly brilliant.

Ladies:  I know what these girls are talking about.  I have felt this too.  Now I am asking you--why do we feel this way?

We live in a time when women have more rights than they have ever had before.  We see women in high positions of power.  We see women making waves.  We see women flaunting their brains rather than their bodies.  We see women being strong.


There is still a lingering sense of inferiority.  For example, when I walk into a room full of men my palms begin to sweat,  my heart starts pounding,  and my head starts spinning.  These are physical responses to my tense, nervous feelings of insecurity.  I am afraid of these men.  They seem more powerful, more respected, than little old me.  They are confident.

Submom recently addressed this issue.  I found her thoughts especially well dictated.  Allow me to quote her.
"At first I thought that men are so good at “chiming in” and “making their points” at any meeting because they somehow were privy to this secret [of being intellectually confident enough to appear stupid sometimes]. Nah. Based on my years of ethnographic study of the male species in the corporate jungle, I believe that they are so good at “speaking up” because, unlike women who are often self-reflexive, most men never even consider the possibility that what comes out of their mouth may just be flat out the stupidest thing someone has ever heard of. See, they never apologize before they speak. The strength of not giving a damn. THAT is the Super Power I would like to have."

Me too, Submom, me too.


  1. I totally agree with Submom. However, I can't help but wonder if some of this reticence to speak up is a result of socialization. I am intimidated by women who are smarter than me, and I hate that about myself. I think a lot of men are that way also, and we inadvertently socialize "our women" to be subservient to a certain degree. Is this true?

  2. And this is just another reason why I love you, Mr. B.

  3. Well, Amber, this is a hot topic for me. I was once humiliated so badly by some sadistic excuse for a substitute teacher - in 3rd grade - that I didn't speak again in a class willingly till I was 43 and working on my master's! Inside my head was the urge to speak but the fear of being ridiculed, of not being right, of having everyone stare at me was much stronger.

    By the time I was working on my master's, though, I had worked so long in my old job that I was used to being confident and knowledgable in the workplace. I had been speaking up in group meetings for years. My workplace experience got extended to the classroom, otherwise I don't think I ever would have spoken.

  4. What a horrible story!!

    Would you say that men in your workplace look up to you?

    I applaud your ease and confidence. If only more women were like that. (Meaning Me, of course.)

  5. Thanks, Amber. I am honored that my rambling struck a cord... What we are talking about here was also used as an excuse for all girls classes: a study showed that girls do not have as much trouble speaking up when they don't have to worry about their male peers in the room. But I agree with you: the foundamental issue here is why we believe/feel we have to be perfect. If not, then we should "hide" our "imperfection" by keeping quiet, staying invisible.

    Btw, I am loving the new website!!

  6. I often feel that men are a lot less judgmental than women. Of course, a lot depends on the topic of discussion too! I tend to be more quiet in a group unless I really feel that I have something to contribute to the conversation. But put me with a bunch of women talking about raising children and I will have a lot to say! :) Interesting topic to think about.

  7. I was always quiet in class. I feared saying stupid things and when I did speak up, I hated myself because my voice would quaver and come out all wimpy. ARGH!

    Why are we so afraid to be wrong, I wonder?

  8. I know this makes me weird, but I am more likely to speak out in a class of men than I am in a class full of women. And I am more comfortable making small talk with them, too. This may be why I chose a major in science?

    Although I can relate to this topic. Men or women, I don't often speak up in classes at all.

  9. While I attended public schools from kindergarden through high school, was a bit shy as a child and somewhat less so as I got older, this is why I am a firm believer in a certain number of women's colleges remaining solely for women. I believe the seven sisters schools (and others for single sex education) continue to serve a purpose.

    I did not intend to go to a women's college; they gave me the largest scholarship.

    It was during those years that I learned to speak out - truly speak out - surrounded by other young women. And I am immensely grateful that I had that experience.

  10. A lot of the lack of speaking out in younger years goes back to being accepted. We want to be accepted by the males in our classes who may be intimidated by intelligence. We want to be accepted by the females in our classes who may not want it expected that the females speak up.

    I have spent a lot of time being the one who speaks up. It has taken a lot but I am use to being the only person waiting until the end of a school board meeting to make a point about something not on an agenda. I am the one who tells the church committee that weekend is not really a good weekend for a lot of families as it is when colleges go back.

    I just know that my life is better if I speak out so why hold back.

  11. ok, so I actually have an opinion on this one. I think a lot of it actually has to do with the men. When my husband is talking with another man and I interject anything, there is frequently this uncomfortable silence. Hmmm. Sometimes I feel like there is a unspoken need to prove my intelligence, but why should I have to do this?
    But I am a little outspoken anyway. In fact, I'm apt to chew you out if I truly feel the need, which is rare.
    To be fair, when I am watching a woman movie or enjoying a conversation about breastfeeding with a girlfriend I feel no guilt about kicking out a man who happens to wander in if I feel like he is going to mock us or intrude upon our estrogen.

  12. For me, I think a lot depends on the age of the men in the room. If they are around my age, they really don't intimidate me. But if they are older, I probably won't open my mouth.

    And there is something about speaking to a group of women that ALWAYS makes me open my mouth and insert a foot. Then I wish I could hide in my room or move to somewhere they've heard of me. =)

    Interesting topic!! I really enjoyed reading!!

  13. I was always outspoken as a kid, pretty confident about myself and my ideas. I credit my parents - not to mention growing up with two brothers and playing on co-ed sports teams throughout childhood - with making me feel equally comfortable opening my big mouth with both boys and girls.

    I do like Submom's point, though, about women being more reflective. I sometimes think I am too quick to speak up and give an opinion and maybe it would be better for me to stop and think more often.

  14. This is quite a powerful and interesting piece you've written. I also feel this way. It's like an unwritten law that men know what they're talking about so their opinions are important. Wow, we need to learn to get past this!

  15. I was also one of the quiet ones in class, but not always. The shift happened when I was in college. My very first semester I had a horrible prof who shot down everyone's ideas, male or female. It set the tone for the rest of my career, I guess.

  16. I'm one of those girls who is not intimidated by men, but I try to remember to think before talking. I think sometimes women do feel they have to be perfect or feel intimidated by men, actually when you described your feelings when you walk into a room of men, I thought it had to do with another kind of reaction, not intimidation:). The important thing is to have a healthy enough self image and that the men respect our intelligence. A good question would be how to teach our children to have better attitudes than our generation has.

  17. Growing up in a family where everyone was ALWAYS talking and talking over everyone else made me the quiet one in classroom situations through gradeschool and highschool. But then in college and grad school when I found my "place" and gained the confidence that I knew what I was talking about, I started enjoying speaking up and sharing my thoughts. But I'm with Charlotte, it was the other women who intimidated me, not the men. I felt more competition with the women and more under the spotlight with them. Same continued into the workplace. It was always the women I felt I needed to gain approval from, not the men.

    Excellent, interesting post!

  18. Yeah, I'm a speaker-upper. Obnoxiously so, maybe. But I'm glad because the biggest regrets I have are the few times where I haven't said something that I should have. So while I saw this happen with the girls when I taught middle school, I'm glad my dad raised me to speak out. It drives me crazy to stay quiet when I have something to say. I'm learning to temper that with better listening, but yeah . . . I guess I'm not one to pipe down.

  19. Your mother told me about this post and that I should come read it and the comments, and I'm glad I did.
    I can relate to what has been said by so many others. When I was in school, I was so painfully shy and hated to speak up in class because I was afraid of what would come out of my mouth and more importantly, I was terrified of people turning and looking at me like I was a complete idiot.
    I outgrew this fear of speaking up as I entered the workforce but interestingly enough, it cropped back up as I entered college recently. Keep in mind, this is my first time in school in 30 years!! Two experiences speak to this subject very well. When we were introducing ourselves in my English class, I rose to introduce myself and found myself stammering left and right. I sat down and thought to myself, "What the heck?!" Another experience was in my math class. We were going over a math problem on our homework and a couple of us were not getting the intention of the story problem. I gave what I thought was the answer and a lady in front of me turned around and looked at me like I was out of my mind. That pissed me off so bad!! I thought about that several times throughout the rest of the day. I just wanted to get out of my chair and punch her in the head! I didn't of course but you get my point.
    One last example and then I'll shut up. When I am hanging out with one of my male friends and we are all talking, sometimes when I chime in, I get shut down as if I don't know what I'm talking about. When we are alone, I make sure to tell him how it made me feel like what I had to say was dumb and I had nothing of value to contribute. He usually apologizes profusely and indicates he wasn't aware.
    So there is definitely some truth to "Speaking up!" for us girls!


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