Why women speak less in public

Women’s public voice is not heard

Why women talk less in public

If you want to know why women talk less in public – and they do – let’s go right back to the first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’.

At the very start of Western literature you’ll find an interesting (but depressingly familiar) demonstration of how a young man puts his older, wiser mother in her place in Homer’s Odyssey.

When Penelope issues an instruction to the bards in her home, Telemachus says: “Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

Mary Beard recounts the exchange in a thought-provoking piece about how women’s voices were not heard in public from the get-go.

“More than that,” she writes, “as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.”

It’s hardly surprising then to find, two millennia later, that women don’t get asked to speak on conference and media panels.

And whatever you might think about women being the chatty gender, think again. In her blog, academic Debbie Cameron debunks the myth that women are incessant talkers.

The statistics consistently show that men do most of the talking in mixed-gender discussions.

So why does that happen? Cameron outlines three explanations that have been popular since the 1970s.

  1. Women are brought up to be less assertive.
  2. Women are less competitive than men.
  3. Women tend to stay silent when men interrupt them, ‘mansplain’ them or ignore their contributions.

The problem, however, goes far deeper than that, says Cameron who has identified a number of reasons why women talk less in public:

  • Women don’t support each other.
  • Women don’t break the rules.
  • Women don’t have strength in numbers – just look at the Dail.
  • Women don’t have seniority.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, say the only real way to get women’s voices heard is to give them more leadership positions. What do you think?