Womanhood is full of frustrating hunches, and society is full of people who want to pooh-pooh those hunches. "I'm pretty sure I'm being treated like shit right now because of my vagina," we women say. "Shut UP, women! Because men get injured in industrial accidents! Therefore, equality reigns!" the pooh-poohers reply. There's almost nothing as satisfying as having one's hunches backed up by science. So color me delighted by this new study published in American Political Science Review, which found that, in collaborative group settings, "the time that women spoke was significantly less than their proportional representation—amounting to less than 75 percent of the time that men spoke."
HA. That is just about the truest shit that I have ever heard. I (and, I suspect, pretty much any woman) can access that feeling really quickly and vividly—when you find yourself in conversation with a circle of men and, against your better judgment and all your feminist impulses, you just turtle up. You retire. You forfeit, because their lungs are bigger, they're groomed for assertiveness since birth, and you're groomed to assume that nobody will take you seriously anyway. You wait for a pause in a room of interruptors. Sigh. I do it like crazy, and I am a fucking loudmouth feminist yelling machine.
So it's satisfying to have one's hunches backed up by a study like this: It's not just me failing at feminism, and it's not just men being paternalistic dicks, it's some sort of sinister societal force that shepherds us into those roles. This isn't just teh evil menz (blah blah blah) doing this to us—we are active participants. We are turtlers. Nothing is solved here—no one is to blame and everyone is to blame—but it's comforting, at least, to confirm that it is happening.
And it's not good. According to the study's authors, women contributed to the conversation much more when it was framed as consensus-building rather than a majority-rules vote. And when women's voices were included, the group's conclusions were profoundly different:
"In school boards, governing boards of organizations and firms, and legislative committees, women are often a minority of members and the group uses majority rule to make its decisions," Mendelberg said. "These settings will produce a dramatic inequality in women's floor time and in many other ways. Women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their 'voice is heard.'"
For their experiments, Karpowitz and Mendelberg recruited people to be part of a group and discuss the best way to distribute money they earned together from a hypothetical task.
...Notably, the groups arrived at different decisions depending on women's participation – swinging the group's stance on the level of generosity given to the lowest member of the group.
"When women participated more, they brought unique and helpful perspectives to the issue under discussion," Karpowitz said. "We're not just losing the voice of someone who would say the same things as everybody else in the conversation."
This problem—of women allowing themselves to be talked over and dominated in group settings—is particularly compelling because it dovetails with soooooo many other issues that we, as feminists, grapple with ad nauseam. It is BFFs with internalized male condescension. It went halfsies on a timeshare with mansplaining. It is more than friends with the way that women default to self-deprecation instead of assertiveness.
Perhaps most significantly, it just goes back to that hoary old double standard—when men speak up to be heard they are confident and assertive; when women do it we're shrill and bitchy. It's a cliche, but it's true. And it leaves us in this chicken/egg situation—we have to somehow change our behavior (i.e. stop conceding and start talking) while simultaneously changing the perception of us (i.e. asserting that assertiveness does not equal bitchiness). But how do you assert that your assertiveness isn't bitchiness to a culture that perceives assertiveness as bitchiness? And how do you start talking to change the perception of how you talk when that perception is actively keeping you from talking? Answer: UGH, I HAVE NO IDEA.
But I guess I will start with this pledge I just made up: I, Lindy West, a shrill bitch, do hereby pledge to talk really really loud in meetings if I have something to say, even if dudes are talking louder and they don't like me. I refuse to be a turtle—unless it is some really loud species of brave turtle with big ideas. I will not hold back just because I'm afraid of being called a loudmouth bitch (or a "trenchmouth loud ass," which I was called the other day and as far as I can tell is some sort of pirate insult). Also, I will use the fuck out of the internet, because they can't drown you out on the internet. The end. Amen or whatever.
Women speak less when they're outnumbered [Eurekalert]