Last night, I had a real moment of despair. I found myself thinking, in order for women to thrive, we really do need, as Virgina Woolf said so long ago, a room of one’s own.
This moment took place in an unlikely venue, in a room almost of our own, as it were. It was a meeting of my local municipality’s women’s council, a volunteer political group composed of the most innovative, intelligent and hard-working women who support the professional work of the Mayor’s Advisor on the Status of Women. This should be the place where women can take charge and set a real social and political agenda. But all it took was one man in the room to dominate in order for all the women’s ideas to get lost.
When I first saw the man in the room, I thought, this is really progressive — a man has joined the women’s council to support women’s work. Last year, he presented a plan to create a sort of administrative center for women’s small businesses, or at least that’s what I thought it was. Turns out, he is merely promoting himself as all-around consultant and adviser to women looking to start a business. As self-serving as it is, it would have been okay had he demonstrated even the slightest respect for women. But he did not.
During the meeting, the guy completely dominated the conversation. He spoke longer, louder and more frequently than any other person in the room. He interrupted, he murmured while others spoke; he spoke over others, and he always came back to his own idea. He did not suggest, he did not deliberate, he did not waffle and he did not apologize. The chair did not stop him or control him or even once say, “Give others a chance to speak.” His idea was the only one adopted, and he was complimented by some of the women around the conference table and he was happy with himself. No regrets, no remorse, no reflection.
Ample research demonstrates that this is what happens between women and men in conversation, in business and in education. The famous American Association of University Women report on gender gaps in schools, among thousands of other studies, showed that in classrooms everywhere, boys talk more often and at greater length than girls, they interrupt more than girls, they get called on more than girls, they get complimented more than girls — and for qualities such as intelligence and innovation as opposed to girls who are complimented for being kind or helpful. This pattern continues to adulthood, when, as Deborah Tannen most ably describes, men tend to talk with assertiveness and without any hesitation, emotion, or doubt, while women self-censor, equivocate and prevaricate. In business, these patterns lead to a reality in which men get promoted more frequently and receive higher salaries from the get-go. Men push boundaries, they don’t take no for an answer, and they have no qualms about demanding what they want and believe they deserve. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, described some of these dynamics at the Ted Women conference in December.
What’s worse, the more the guy spoke last night, the more it became obvious that, despite joining the Women’s Council, he actually knows nothing about gender or about women’s lives. He criticized women for not working hard enough, for not making his own venture successful, for not being more aggressive in business, for not showing up to events. “I spent two days at a conference last week, losing 9-10 hours of work each day, because it was important to me,” he said. “Women can do the same thing. They just have to work harder and decide that it’s important to them.” I started to point out that his analysis misses a lot of dynamics in the lives of working mothers. I wanted to say, how many working mothers freely work 9-10 hours a day to begin with? I wanted to say, during your 9-10 hours at work every day, or at the conference, who is looking after your children? I wanted to say, it is so easy to leave work for a conference but much harder to find 10 hours of alternative childcare. I was really hoping the facilitator would tell the guy to just stop talking for a minute and listen, but that didn’t happen. Instead, all I got to say was, “It’s not the same,” and then he shouted me down, and I did not want to enter a shouting match about this, and the discussion took other turns and that was that.
There is a growing movement to blame women for these dynamics. If women get interrupted, it’s our fault. We need to be more assertive, less afraid, more forthcoming. In short, if we want to get ahead, we need to be more like men.
I was thinking about this last night as I tried to figure out how to have my own voice heard in this environment. I know all the research; I thought, I should just speak up more assertively, be a little more like the guy. But that just isn’t working for me. And in fact, I do not think that’s the answer. I do not want to use classic male behavior as my model. I think I’m assertive enough, and I don’t aspire to be obnoxious.
Rather than continuing to blame women, we need to start holding men responsible. I would like someone — maybe it should be me, maybe it will be me — to say to this guy and the zillions of guys like him, “Hey, buddy, let someone else talk. You’re interrupting, you’re dominating, and you’re rude.” I would like facilitators to ignore men who are overly dominant. More than that, I would like businesses to stop rewarding aggression, to stop working off the assumption that the person who speaks longest and most authoritatively knows the most. I would like people to be more self-reflective in the way they read and respond to male behavior. Instead of focusing on how women should change in order to advance, I would like us to start talking about how men should change in order to make some room for women.