If you’re female, you have experienced this. It’s an afternoon meeting, or a conference panel or a dinner in honour of someone. A man, usually the boss or the bureaucrat or the businessman, begins talking and then talks and talks and talks. It doesn’t matter if the audience is falling asleep or is bored to death or starving; the words keep coming. In an article published in the New York Times last week, author Julia Baird called this “the manologue”, a common occurrence where the male ego subsumes and overrides consideration for time, relevance and just about anything else.
There is now scientific evidence for this. Contrary to the oft-held precept that women are the chatty gender, Baird cites a Harvard study that shows that the larger the group, the more likely it is to be dominated by talking men. This reveals two things: first, that men – driven by their egos – are eager to dominate whenever they have an audience; and second that women – when they do talk – prefer small groups where they can establish relationships.
Another study, carried out by researchers at Princeton and Brigham Young University, whose findings were published in the book The Silent Sex: Gender Deliberations and Institutions, reveals how the percentage of women in a discussion plays a significant role on whether or not they raise their voices. When women are 20% or less of a group discussion, they are likely to not speak at all or be interrupted, shut down or silenced when they do. Nor is this the experience of only powerless women; former US secretary of state Madeline Albright said in an interview that even she felt some anxiety when entering a discussion composed entirely or largely of men.
Parity in discussions
For women to have a voice equal to men, the research suggests, a female majority is the best bet. This is, of course, a distant dream, but it can work to clear away many of the misunderstandings that pervade issues of gender quotas and female inclusion. First of all, as many female readers will know and agree, simply having women around the table, or on panels and in meetings, does not change the dynamics of male dominance.
Often, female silence in public discussions or at decision-making forums is limited by the fact that they are afraid of consequences, reluctant to be perceived as talking too much or being too vocal. Nice women, the sort who get promoted, tolerated and hence included in the male world, are expected to remain womanly, which equals not being aggressive, which, in turn, stands for not talking too much.
There is evidence to back these concerns. A Yale study conducted by Victoria Brescoll showed that while men are rewarded for speaking up at meetings, perceived as innovative and having leadership qualities, women are punished for doing so.
The percentages at which the Princeton study noted male and female parity in discussions are worthy of close attention. It is only when women constitute over 60% that they have some semblance of equality in discussions; at 50% their role isn’t even close to equal; and at 20-30% their views are either not heard at all or have little role in actual decision-making.
This data, which proves not only the simple truth of just how much, how often and how unselfconsciously men dominate discussions and decision-making, also shows that having quotas for women that are less than 50% do not yield the benefits that were once assumed. Even more, the data shows just how little the solitary successes of some women reflect benefits to be reaped by all. Prime ministers, tennis stars, politicians in male-dominated countries such as Pakistan, may reflect individual victories, but their successes, while worthy of celebration, are not in any way reflective of the inclusion of women as a whole.
Feeling left out
In Pakistan, where the religious right wants to exclude women completely and the liberal left only wants to include them when their presence does not impinge on the rights of a number of liberal (but still misogynistic) men, this prognosis leaves one feeling quite dismal. Where even 30% inclusion is a rarely achieved goal, 50 or 60% seems just about impossible.
The inclusion of women, even those duly qualified, is painted by bosses and businesses as some immensely laudable accommodation, an emblem of the progressive-mindedness of the institution. In most cases, however, women do not even make it to the boardroom or the executive team, toiling away in entry or mid-level positions, watching male colleagues and pontificating bosses deliver "manologues" in meeting after meeting. There is no magic spell that will suddenly make the Pakistani male, or males in general, recognise that constituting one half of the population can and does entitle women to half the decision-making.
The workplace, or for that matter any public place, is a battleground where everyone, male or female, comes armed in the gear of survival and self-interest. Sisterhood is a tough sell in this ruthless neighbourhood where the collective experience of being female doesn’t usually amount to much. Patriarchy, after all, does not simply propagate and perpetuate women’s’ silence and absence; it also ensures women’s hatred of other women.
Yet of all the prescriptive quotas that haven’t been achieved and all the data showing male dominance, it may be one of the few things that women can consider as a means of actual change. If women, all of them subject to tedious "manologues", decide not only to speak up, but to vocally and routinely support other women who speak up, some small change can be effected.
So if you’re sick of the chatter of men, their pontifications on just about everything, their assumption that they know what’s best for you and for everyone else, speak up next time you hear a woman’s voice.
It won’t end "manologues", but it may provide a refreshing, even interesting, interruption.
This article first appeared on Dawn.