When I was 7, I read in one of the “Little House on the Prairie” books that Laura Ingalls and her sisters were expected to be completely silent when company came to call. They weren’t to speak or move and could only listen patiently to those with greater knowledge and experience than they had.
My memory is vague on the particulars, but that passage left an impression that still lingers with me more than a decade later (Especially since, in many ways, I still see myself as a child in the company of adults). My voice will contribute nothing valuable to the conversation; it is better for me and everyone else if I stay silent and listen. This attitude of silence, somewhere along the way, became tied inextricably with my identity as a woman. Male leaders, teachers, politicians and classmates told me what to do and think; I listened.
I don’t think this preference for silence is isolated to just me, however. Despite pervasive stereotypes of the motormouthed woman, in professional and classroom settings women are generally found to speak less frequently than men. Researchers at Brigham Young University and Princeton found that men generally speak 75 percent more than women in conferences and professional meetings. A study at Harvard Law School found that men were 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily three times or more in a classroom setting than women were. Men were also found to speak about two-and-a-half times longer than female classmates at Harvard.
And even when women do speak, they are not always heard. A study conducted by a Yale University professor found that, while high rates of talkativeness made men seem more believable to their audiences, it made women seem less so.
These are students and co-workers with equal levels of intelligence, skill and qualifications. The difference between them, as these studies point out, is that male colleagues wield more influence because their voices are louder. And often, women don’t learn as well as their male counterparts because they don’t participate fully in the classroom’s learning process.
My own classroom experience, and that of my peers, tends to confirm the results of these studies. Many of the classes I take are reading and discussion-based courses in the Great Texts program. Students are expected to read Rousseau or Aquinas and come to class prepared for discussion. These classes have, in my experience, often allowed male students to dominate class conversations. They are often firmer in their opinions and more adamant in expressing them than female classmates like me, who hesitate to speak at all and, when we do, pose our statements as questions.
One of the most rewarding classes that I’ve had at Baylor was Great Texts by Women. There were no male students in the class, a fact that my classmates both mourned and celebrated.
While male students could surely have benefited from taking the class, my classmates and I remarked by the end of the class how free we had felt to express our opinions that semester without fear of censure. I learned more in that class than I had in any other, because I didn’t feel that I was expected to be silent, or that my voice didn’t matter as much as someone else’s. While I may speak once each period in another class with a more balanced gender ratio, I spoke nearly every time that class met, and formed my opinions much more completely than I had in any other class context.
In another Great Texts class that I’m taking this semester, I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” The book, which was published in 1929 and has had a tremendous influence on feminist thought in the decades since, addresses the scarcity of female voices in the public discourse. Woolf explains that women haven’t been able to speak for centuries because of their poor financial and social circumstances. But, she says, it is vitally important that they find the means to speak now, whether it is through fiction, poetry, journalism, philosophy or science. We are all trying to better understand ourselves, after all, and how can humankind be known if half its voice is silent?
Women speak much more loudly now than they did in 1929. Many more of us have the resources to attend college, to work and support ourselves, to have a voice.
But even now, only about 20 percent of op-ed columns like this one are written by women in the traditional media (Although, encouragingly, 38 percent of op-eds are written by women in college newspapers).
I’m not blaming male classmates, professors or employers for the imbalance that so frequently occurs in discussions. It’s a problem that goes far beyond individuals and particular circumstances, but it is a problem that we all need to be made aware of, and find a way to address as individuals.
I’m not saying men shouldn’t speak at all; reversing imbalanced positions of power is rarely the best solution. Rather, they must learn to speak and to be silent, like the children in “Little House on the Prairie.” We’re all children, really, and none of us are. We all must speak and let our experiences be heard, and at times we must all be children, listening quietly at the table.
Helena Hunt is a senior university scholars major from Sonoita, Ariz. She is the Arts and Life editor for the Lariat.