By Jasmine Liu
When it comes to ideas that are really “out there” — the type of thing that could be visionary, controversial, provocative or all of the above — it is natural to require extensive and well-reasoned rationale. Unfortunately, people rarely stick around long enough for women to achieve this task.
What conventionally is recognized to be effective oral argumentation consists of strong appeals to pathos, ethos and logos. Ethos, or an argument’s persuasiveness based upon the credibility of the person advancing it, is often underemphasized, because in many circumstances, it is impossible for us to immediately control it. Often, though, our reputation precedes us, and our ability to both communicate and be heard are dependent on how we are initially perceived.
Through a systematic and long-standing tendency to dismiss women’s ideas because of an automatic, biased assessment of women’s capabilities to think normatively, women have learned to keep quiet when they hold controversial perspectives or have alternative approaches to problem-solving.
Moreover, as a holdover from an era in which women were expected to play ornamental roles in daily life, women are taught to avoid discord at all costs and to be hyper-cognizant of their likability. Such social norms have pushed women into silence whenever their views belong in the minority or may produce backlash.
Research has frequently documented the tendency for women’s thoughts to be dismissed before their ideas have even been registered. More often than not, this response is less of an active response than a subconscious inclination to zone out in a conversation when we have automatically judged the quality of someone’s contributions. Without creating space for assertive women, our minds are unable to process the possibility of a woman who is not erratically emotional yet still invested in making a point. In turn, we falsely label her as “irrational” or “angry.”
Of course, the refusal to consider ideas that may be influenced by emotions is flawed in and of itself. The notion that a woman, or anyone else, may be characterized as “unreasonable” is merely a lazy attempt to withhold our time from those who are passionate about a topic.
How can questions of fairness or improving the human condition matter devoid of the personal experiences through which we make sense of these abstract concepts? In slapping the critique of anger or irrationality on a woman’s potentially heated opinions, we take the easy way out, neglecting the difficult work of attempting to understand what has influenced a person to feel especially strongly about something. It is a unique disposition in conversing with women to partition off their zeal as an abhorrence rather than an asset.
Furthermore, raised with the expectation that they will grow up to be social facilitators, women stray away from anything that may spark disagreement. While men are more likely to handle conflict with a direct, aggressive style, women are more likely to be indirect, or avoid the issue altogether.
One is not superior to another; some disputes require resolution, while others can be reasonably ignored. But raising girls to avoid friction at all costs, even when it may be fruitful, not only sets themselves back but also forces women with more direct styles of confrontation to appear “pushy.”
Just in the past few years, one may recall Jill Abramson’s dismissal from the executive editor position at the New York Times for being “polarizing and mercurial” and the recent attacks on Hillary Clinton’s “shrillness” in her bid for presidency. Unaccustomed to women who speak their mind and are undeterred in seeking their ambitions, society at large is compliant when bold women see their likability take a hit.
In turn, this negative feedback loop persistently discourages any vocal contributions, let alone more contentious ones. Having internalized the reality that their comments won’t be received anyway, women often stay quiet in unfamiliar group settings, achieving a self-fulfilling prophecy in which silence and nervousness fuel their inability to coherently explain themselves verbally in the future.
Persistent interruptions when women present their thinking undermine confidence and even lead to disjointed speech patterns. For example, women may speak more quickly in anticipation of imminently being cut off, and are relegated to the position of agreement, pitching short one-word indications of assent.
Yet this has not stopped women from expressing their thoughts. Among many famous female writers who wrote under male pseudonyms, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë adopted the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell when publishing their works, with Emily Brontë commenting that, “we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
Throughout the ages, writing has become a sort of safe haven for opinionated women who have likely been shut up in conversation by their male counterparts. At least women have the assurance they can express their unbutchered thoughts in writing — an assurance that doesn’t exist through verbal communication.
A first step towards un-silencing women is to treat them the same way we would treat men in discussions, especially when disagreement arises.
A male executive candidly revealed that in evaluating women’s behavior in meetings, “We talk about them, but not to them.” It appears that when it comes to communicating with women, men are similarly prone to using ineffective communication strategies.
This kind of attitude emanates from an outdated instinct for the need to “protect” women. Instead, debate should be treated as a good — not a destructive force to shy away from.
We must give women the same leeway as men to voice unpopular opinions, and we must similarly criticize those ideas we take issue with. When women can be seen as equally capable of making claims and defending them, they may finally get the equal respect they deserve when they speak.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.