The check-yourself list: why women aren’t talking

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Nicola Browne

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

Here’s a question for the 51%: in a team discussion in the office, in large formal meetings, or even when socialising with friends, have you ever stopped yourself from speaking, asking questions, or expressing your opinion because you were still silently, painstakingly going over a checklist in your head?

That checklist might look something like this.

  •  Should I say something? 

  •  Perhaps I should wait to hear others speak first. 

  • What if I don’t have a relevant point to make? 

  • I wonder if everyone will think I don’t have an opinion on this issue if I don’t speak up. 

  • Ok, I’m going to speak – but how should I frame this to make sure I don’t sound stupid?

If you’re like us, you may be familiar with this scenario. Study after study indicates that in mixed groups, men dominate the discussion; one piece of research found that men account for 75% of conversation to women’s 25%. And this is probably no more of a surprise to you, thinking of your own experiences, than it must have been to Montreal borough mayor Sue Montgomery, who began knitting a scarf whose colours reflected the speaking time taken up by male councillors (red yarn) and female councillors (green yarn) in council meetings. Yes, by the end it was a largely red scarf.

What makes women doubt ourselves so much?

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Renata Cuk

2018-19 Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity

The difference in the amount of talking time that men and women take up is astonishing. As we reflected, it made us question whether men’s experience of meetings is the same as ours. So we asked some of them. A colleague who typically speaks at our office meetings said that not only does he not question himself, but he feels he always has something relevant to say. After our initial surprise, we started thinking about his response a little more deeply. What is it that makes women doubt ourselves to the point that we keep silent? What can we do about it?

The first step is recognising that these mental checklists – you could even call them “check-yourself lists”, because they keep us in check – really do exist. We could see many of the brilliant women we talked to experiencing an “aha!” moment when they realised that the checklist was a shared experience. Our checklists were never identical, but we had all had that feeling of self-doubt and inner struggle before contributing in meetings. What’s more, we were all aware that when women speak out strongly on an issue, they are likely to elicit unsolicited feedback on their “performance”. Whether they are judged to be too aggressive or too emotional, there is apparently always something they should have adjusted to make their contributions more acceptable. 

So how do we deal with that? It looks like we have to add another item to our checklist.


‘The ability to speak with authority is a form of privilege’

We also discovered that we, and many women we know, internalised these experiences as evidence of a personal failing, blaming our inexperience as a public speaker, or our lack of confidence. But lack of confidence is gendered, and according to research by Zachary Estes, a psychologist who looked into confidence disparity by gender, it leads to women holding themselves back. Checklists are bigger than our individual experiences; they are the product of our socialisation and the roles society envisages, rewards and reinforces for men and women. As one of the male activists in our group put it, “The ability to speak both quickly and with authority is a form of privilege.” 

What can be done? Raising awareness of the issue – among everyone – is a start.. Once we recognise that the check-yourself list is not a weirdly unhelpful individual quirk, but rather the result of systemic oppression, maybe we can find ways to address it. Supporting each other by creating spaces for female voices and diverse experiences to be heard is a huge first step.

One helpful tactic is to start measuring the exact amount of time men and women speak in meetings. There’s an app for it, of course, and you can even create a nice graph that shows just how dominant certain voices in the room are. We tried it. No surprise: we found that men take up way more time. But guess what? When we started to measure it, it made our male colleagues pay attention and even hold themselves back when they realised they were hijacking the proceedings. Moreover, it made all of us a bit more at ease at these office meetings, almost as if the pressure to perform was slightly reduced.

We also need to recognise that women are not the only people who have checklists, and that not all checklists look the same. While on the one hand these think-before-you-speak checklists can be tools of oppression, whirring into action to ensure that your potentially valuable contributions get muted into polite silence, on the other hand, using check-yourself lists could become a pro-equity strategy for people who recognise their privilege and want to do something to even up the outcome. The difference, however, is that as one of our thoughtful colleagues said, “As a white guy, I get to decide when I want to use the checklist.” As for the rest of us, if we are serious about amplifying the voices of women and other often-silenced groups, an account of practices in Barack Obama’s White House suggests there are a number of simple, practical ways to do so.

Even in progressive spaces, gender dynamics are all about power

It’s important to point out the context in which the discussions we’re talking about occurred not within a traditional corporate environment, but in a progressive social justice organisation. The follow-up conversations we had that showed a gender split between those who wrestled with a mental checklists and those who didn’t were among a group of international activists working on inequality, human rights and social justice – a sector that prides itself on the importance it places on issues of voice and participation. If we recognise that diversity of voices and viewpoints make our work as social justice advocates stronger, then how many important insights have organisations like ours failed to hear because of all those checklists?

Even in the most progressive of spaces, women grapple with their checklists. Gender dynamics are about power, and are rooted in societal expectations of men and women, whether they are inequality campaigners or hedge fund analysts. Activists are expected to have strong opinions and be fearless in fighting injustice, but we have all seen how often courageous, experienced activist women are labelled as angry, and their contributions devalued. At the same time, the quieter voices among us go unheard or are simply dismissed when they tentatively try out ideas in spaces that favour loud and dogmatic assertions.

The ways we work together to build change are just as important as the change we achieve. It is even more important that social justice organisations, working in demanding and time-poor environments, not only think hard about the group and power dynamics within their team, but put measures in place to ensure there is space for contributions from all. If we are serious about the principles of equality, participation and power behind our social justice work, we need to make the way we interact with each other part of our cause, not superfluous to it. 

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Nicola Browne is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. She tweets at @nicolajbrowne.

Renata Cuk is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. She tweets at @renata_cuk

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo: Tim Gouw @punttim on Unsplash