Speak up girls!
We’re hearing, as we do every year when the financial results are announced, about the imbalance between women and men on company Boards. A while back, a survey reported in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that female MPs ask fewer questions than males. I think the two things are connected. After thirty years of affirmative action you’ve got to ask ‘what’s going on?’
My observation is that women underestimate the verbal powers they need for leadership. There’s evidence that if you speak well you can do well, but women are not getting onto it. When the time comes and they’re positioned to step up to a big job, they squib it. Then they’re (unfairly) overlooked next time round.
I spend a lot of time with young people, school debaters and public speakers, and it seems that in primary school the gender involvement is about even, but somewhere round year 10, girls start to de-select themselves. It’s not that older girls lose, it’s that they don’t even put themselves forward.
If you look at the list of winners of major school speaking competitions in the last thirty years it’s 2:1 to boys. Winners of the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald Plain English Speaking Award include many names we now see in public life, but only one third of them are female. For some reason, even at this young age women are counting themselves out.
Maybe it’s easier than dealing with the difficulties they face.
I hope that things are starting to change. The 2010 Australian Schools Debating Team was all girls – and as individual speakers they took the top 4 places in the World Schools Debating Championships. Their success aroused media interest and comment at the competition. It wasn’t that they were good, it was because they were girls and they were good. To succeed in this traditionally male domain meant to at least some people, that they’d pushed men aside to do so. That shows guts as well as ability. And women need both.
Acquiring solid speaking skills ought to be a no-brainer for men and women. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to be a Director of a Company or a Member of Parliament – no-one can get through LIFE without verbal skills. Not while you get a job by going for an interview, or get a loan by talking to your bank manager, or have to talk your way through meetings, phone calls and the thousands of daily transactions that are just normal to our existence. But I know plenty of people who are paralysed by the fear of making a fool of themselves if they speak at a meeting, give or accept congratulations, take the leadership role they’re offered, or deliver a conference paper on a subject they may be an expert on. Many of these people are female.
Oral presentations are now part of the school curriculum. It’s a small start to what really needs to be a wholesale change. Let’s hope the all-girl Australian debating team signals a genuine shift: the emergence of an authoritative, powerful but distinctly female voice that we’ll hear much more of in public life in future.