|[Image Source: Papercards]|
Last month, a group of Australian researchers from the life sciences published a paper that breaks down the duration of talks at a 2013 conference by gender. They found that while the overall attendance and number of presentations was almost equally shared between men and women, the women spoke on the average for shorter periods of time. The main reason for this was that the women applied for shorter talks to begin with. You find a brief summary on the Nature website.The twitter community of women in science was all over this, encouraging women to make the same requests as men, asserting that women “underpromote” themselves by not taking up enough of their colleagues’ time.
Other studies have previously found that while women on the average speak as much as men during the day, they tend to speak less in groups, especially so if the group is predominantly male. So the findings from the conference aren’t very surprising.
Now a lot of what goes around on twitter isn’t really meant seriously, see the smiley in Katie Hinde’s tweet. I remarked one could also interpret the numbers to show that men talk too much and overpromote themselves. I was joking of course to make a point, but after dwelling on this for a while I didn’t find it that funny anymore.
Women are frequently told that to be successful they should do the same as men do. I don’t know how often I have seen advice explaining how women are allegedly belittling themselves by talking, well, like a woman. We are supposed to be assertive and take credit for our achievements. Pull your shoulders back, don’t cross your legs, don’t flip your hair. We’re not supposed to end every sentence as if it was a question. We’re not supposed to start every interjection with an apology. We’re not supposed to be emotional and personal, and so on. Yes, all of these are typically “female” habits. We are told, in essence, there’s something wrong with being what we are.
Here is for example a list with public speaking tips: Don’t speak about yourself, don’t speak in a high pitch, don’t speak too fast because “Talking fast is natural with two of your best friends and a bottle of Mumm, but audiences (especially we slower listening men) can’t take it all in”. Aha. Also, don’t flirt and don’t wear jewelry because the slow men might notice you’re a woman.
Sorry, I got sick at point five and couldn’t continue – must have been the Mumm. Too bad if your anatomy doesn’t support the low pitches. If you believe this guy that is, but listen to me for a moment, I swear I’ll try not to flirt. If your voice sounds unpleasant when you’re giving a talk, it’s not your voice, it’s the microphone and the equalizer, probably set for male voices. And do we really need a man to tell us that if we’re speaking about our research at a conference we shouldn’t talk about our recent hiking trip instead?
There are many reasons why women are underrepresented in some professions and overrepresented in others. Some of it is probably biological, some of it is cultural. If you are raising or have raised a child it is abundantly obvious that our little ones are subjected to gender stereotypes starting at very young age. Part of it is the clothing and the toys, but more importantly it’s simply that they observe the status quo: Childcare is still predominantly female business and I yet have to see a woman on the garbage truck.
Humans are incredibly social animals. It would be surprising if the prevailing stereotypes did not affect us at all. That’s why I am supportive of all initiatives that encourage children to develop their talents regardless of whether these talents are deemed suitable for their gender, race, or social background. Because these stereotypes are thousands of years old and have become hurdles to our selfdevelopment. By and large, I see more encouragements for girls than I see for boys to follow their passion regardless of what society thinks, and I also see that women have more backup fighting unrealistic body images which is what this previous post was about. Ironically, I was criticized on twitter for saying that boys don’t need to have a superhero body to be real men because that supposedly wasn’t fair to the girls.
I am not supportive of hard quotas that aim at prefixed male-female ratios. There is no scientific support for these ratios, and moreover I witnessed repeatedly that these quotas have a big backlash, creating a stigma that “She is just here because” whether or not that is true.
Thus, at the present level women are likely to still be underrepresented from where we would be if we’d manage to ignore social pressure to follow ancient stereotypes. And so I think that we would benefit from more women among the scientists, especially in math-heavy disciplines. Firstly because we are unnecessarily missing out of talent. But also because diversity is beneficial for the successful generation and realization of ideas. The relevant diversity is in the way we think and argue. Again, this is probably partly biological and partly cultural, but whatever the reason, a diversity of thought should be encouraged and this diversity is almost certainly correlated with demographic diversity.
That’s why I disapprove of so-called advice that women should talk and walk and act like men. Because that’s exactly the opposite from what we need. Science stands to benefit from women being different from men. Gender equality doesn’t mean genders should be equal, it means they should have the same opportunities. So women are more likely to volunteer organizing social events? Wtf is wrong with that?
So please go flip your hair if you feel like it, wear your favorite shirt, put on all the jewelry you like, and generally be yourself. Don’t let anybody tell you to be something you are not. If you need the long slot for your talk go ahead. If you’re confident you can get across your message in 15 minutes, even better, because we all talk too much anyway.
About the video: I mysteriously managed to produce a video in High Definition! Now you can see all my pimples. My husband made a good camera man. My anonymous friend again helped cleaning up the audio file. Enjoy :)