Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Speak up girls!

We’re hearing once again about the imbalance between women and men on company Boards. A while back, the Sydney Morning Herald broke the news that female MPs ask fewer questions than males. I think the two things are connected. Granted it's a complex cocktail but 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 for complex 'Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-not' reasons, women are not getting onto it. When the time comes and they're positioned to step up, 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 to me that in primary school the genders are about even, but somewhere round year 10, girls start to de-select themselves. Older girls don’t even put themselves forward. If you look at the list of winners of major speaking competitions in the last thirty years it's 2:1 to blokes. Winners of the Sydney Morning Herald Plain English Speaking Award include several names now familiar in public life, but only ten out of all 32 winners are female.

For some reason, as women, we just count ourselves out. Maybe it’s easier than dealing with the difficulties we’ll face.

However, I hope that things are set to change. The Australian Schools Debating Team for 2010 was all girls - a first, and as individuals they ranked 1-4 in the World Schools debating championships last February. In last year's Rep debating competition the all-girls teams didn't lose once. They trounced the boys and the co-ed teams. These impressive young females are working their way to the forefront of a traditionlly male domain. They should be encouraged and respected for their guts as well as their ability.

The silly thing is, acquiring solid speaking skills ought to be a no-brainer. Never mind being a Director of a company or getting into Parliament. I know of no-one who 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 salt and pepper 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, thankfully. It’s a very 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.


  1. 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. 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.