I study in an all-girls college. Therefore, whenever a man attempts to speak to me, I have to rely upon certain techniques to tide me through the conversation. I giggle nervously at whatever they say, get flustered and run away, or attempt to cover the giant leap into exclusively male domains by saying “Messi is the best player Manchester United has,” when I’m not staring vacuously at my nails. Or at least, this is what Richard Cairn, the head of Brighton College, would have us believe. In an article for an independent schools website, Cairn wrote, “After all, if girls do not learn to socialise with boys as children, what happens when they go out into the workplace? They may have a clutch of A*s and a first class degree but if they cannot meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues they will be at a huge disadvantage.” Cairn is also of the opinion that single-sex institutions create artificial hierarchies that will impair the ability of its students to function in a professional space, and that they have a judgemental, claustrophobic environment that is noxious and slut-shaming.
The arguments Cairn expresses are clearly sexist and myopic, intended to promote the institution he works for. Women in single-sex institutions, and women in general are not unidimensional airheads who are unable to form opinions unless they have the advantage of male wisdom. They are more often than not articulate individuals, who do not deem it necessary to pander to gender stereotyping. All-girls educational institutes can be incredibly uplifting spaces, in which the internalized misogyny of slut-shaming is immediately realised. However, Cairn does manage to hit upon a part of the truth : women struggle to be heard in the workplace, and the system of gender-inclusive communication has gone awry. Women often feel invisible at the workplace and find it difficult to put forth their opinions. This has two results: they are either ignored, or spoken over. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote: “We’ve both seen it happen again and again. When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”
The problematisation of speech arises not so much from the defects of single-sex education, but from societal notions of gender-appropriate behaviour. For a woman to believe that she is entitled to her opinion, and to ask for the privilege of being listened to, is difficult in a society that discourages women from speaking. This is not only in the professional realm. It is seen in the mansplaining that occurs when a woman explains that catcalling makes her uncomfortable. It is in the immediate question of “did you say something to lead him on?” when a girl complains about inappropriate behaviour. It is when a woman who professes to be a fan of Chelsea must answer questions like “What was the blood type of the coach in 1950?” to be deemed that elusive thing : a real fan.
Talking is seen as a common calumny against womankind in general. Women are silenced in innocuous, subtle ways that would seem absurd were they to be pointed out, right from pre-school when we hear the adage “little girls must be seen and not heard”, to when a cackling teacher points out, “oh, girls cannot stop gossiping.” Ironically, women who have been sidelined throughout history, and their voices have been so suppressed that the chronicling of events is known as “his story.”
Women’s voices and achievements are particularly overlooked in academia. Sandi Toksvig, the Danish comedian and historian noted, “When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. ‘This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar’ she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’ It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions?”
To be taken seriously in academia and professional spaces, women must observe silence and attempt to pass as the “Other”. The minimizing of the female identity is seen on the internet, as well as in real life. In a survey conducted by the Guardian, 80% of the commenters in top news and alternative news sites are men, or have gender-neutral usernames. This is alarming because it is through the comments that editors glean public opinions and interests. This misrepresentation also occurs because of trolling, doxing, and the frequent abuse that women receive for expressing opinions online. One notable incident is Gamergate, when female game developers and cultural critics received death threats for criticizing the skewed representations of the feminine in video game culture.
For inter-gender communication to improve, there must be a recognition of the practices which are a breeding ground for entitlement and misogyny. Such efforts must be deep-rooted, both in the internal landscape and external landscape of the individual, because people in a position of privilege rarely give up that position easily.
Photo Credit: Kayla Sawyer (Flickr)