Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

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.

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2 comments on “Speak up girls!

  1. Bob
    07/06/2010

    Interesting given girls are verbally way ahead of most boys. I suspect it has a lot to do with 'fitting into' culturally driven norms of boy girl relationships. I have also found that girls and women have a much more complex societal relationship and pecking order view and understanding, and so seem to be less comfortable telling others what to do, and so on and yet in families, this is often reversed – perhaps because the specific environment is 'closed' and the nuances of power etc are clearly defined and framed?Whatever the reality, it is cray that so few women are in senior roles. Go the girls!

  2. Claire Duffy
    07/06/2010

    I think you're observations are right Bob. There's a lot of talk about women's communication styles disadvantaging them in the workplace – because of their supposed drive to connect rather than to dominate. Domestically however women are 'allowed' to be boss. The problem for girls is that men have successfully claimed the public domain and if you venture in there you're an interloper and will not be welcome. Then it all gets rather uncomfortable and you back out.

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This entry was posted on 02/06/2010 by in Debates, Public speaking, Women speakers and tagged .

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