“Meetings with women take too long...If one person raises their hand, others probably think, I need to say something too. That's why everyone speaks.” If reading this sentence accidentally made your blood pressure shoot up and your eyes see red, you’re not alone. This was said by the head of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee Yoshiro Mori. Oh, and he also happens to be a former Prime Minister of Japan. Mori’s comments sparked a storm, and he apologised. To most women, though, nothing about this was unfamiliar — the comment, the storm and the apology.
Men have been telling women to shut up for 3,000 years. That’s not just me rage-typing. It’s actually true. In her talk “The Public Voice of Women,” historian Mary Beard goes to the dawn of Western Civilization...to find women being asked to shut up. Case in point? Homer’s Odyssey. Where Telemachus, who is Odysseus’ son tells his mother, Penelope, “Go back up into your quarters. Speech will be the business of men.” Just like how in drawing rooms in India, gupshup — whether it’s political or otherwise — is not where women of the house will be. (They’re expected to be in the kitchen, of course, like this brilliant short film “Juice” reminds us.)
Forget ancient Greek epics. Women are told they talk too much, or just are too much, in our very modern times too! Just take a look at the list of adjectives used for women politicians that are never used for male politicians. “Bossy, fiery, shrill, nasty…” All adjectives that subtly imply, just like in Homer’s epic, that the public space isn’t where women are supposed to be. In a 2016 article in The Atlantic called “How Pop Culture Tells Women to Shut Up,” Megan Garber sums up it nicely, “The “common scold” of the 17th century is present, in other words, every time a woman of the 21st is punished for asserting herself in the public sphere: every time she—whether running for president or simply running her life—is dismissed for being too brash, and too ambitious, and too inconvenient, and above all too loud.”
But...do women talk too much? Actually, they don’t. A research study by Deborah James and Janice Drakich indicated a bulk of research findings which showed that actually, men talk more. Political scientists have found that in groups of five, if only one member is a woman, she speaks 40 percent less than each of the men. Even with three women, that number doesn’t increase! And the virtual world hasn’t made things easier. A study conducted in the US found that 45% women business leaders said it’s difficult for women to speak up in online meetings. In India, if a similar study were to take place, I imagine the numbers would look even less for Dalit women and queer women. After all, it’s a question of privilege, opportunity, and who is allowed to speak, right?
So clearly there’s a gap. Men, and the wider culture with all its structural differences, would like us to believe that either women talk too much, or they don’t talk much sense. Data says that might not be the case. What can you, as a young woman, do?
I think the answer lies in, not retreating, but taking up MORE space. Speak up, speak freely. Let the “tut, tut” be. Prolong that meeting if you think you need to make an important point. If someone says you talk too much, say, um, yes, thank you. Cultivate a sisterhood of loud, intelligent, and ambitious women. Talk to them the next time you’re hurt by someone calling you “bossy.” (Which, hey, I get it.)
TL;DR: Prove the Greek epic wrong. Make speech the business of...anyone. Not just men.