LITTLE girls should be seen and not heard, goes the old saying.
But it also seems it’s a motto some grown women are taking to heart.
Recent research shows that, in mixed company, men do most of the talking. The study, published in the American Political Science Review, found that women speak “substantially less” when outnumbered by their male peers in group discussions.
Observing almost 100 mixed-sex groups of at least five people, political scientist Chris Karpowitz noted: “The time that women spoke was significantly less than their proportional representation — amounting to less than 75% of the time that men spoke.”
It’s a statistic that doesn’t surprise business woman and financial journalist Margaret Ward. “I think that men do tend to dominate the conversation,” says Ward, managing director of Clear Ink, a Dublin-based corporate communications company.
“Women will wait for the other person to stop talking to make their point — unfortunately, it’s often too late.”
Despite making up 51% of the population here, women are still shockingly under-represented when it comes to decision-making in Ireland, according to the latest CSO report on Women and Men in Ireland.
Just over 15% of TDs in Dáil Éireann are women, compared to the EU average of 25% for women in national parliament.
Meanwhile, women account for little more than a third of members of State Boards, less than a fifth of members of local authorities and just over a third of the membership of Vocational Education Committees here.
So just when Irish women need to be speaking up the most, why have we quietened to a whisper? “There really isn’t one simple answer,” says Dr Denise Mullen, a psychologist at the Connolly Counselling Centre in Dublin.
“But a lot of times we grow up in homes with a controlling parent, and quite often that is the dad.
“From an early age, little girls, especially, become very attuned to the signals that adults don’t want to hear what they have to say.
“Women who have been controlled in the past generally go one of two ways — they either tend to be passive in the presence of controlling men or resolve never to back down to anyone again.”
But even vocal little girls can soon conform to gender stereotypes in the classroom.
“Traditional socialisation practices teach boys to be present, active, dominant agents in society,” says Aoife Neary, chair of Sibéal Postgraduate Gender and Feminist Studies Network.
“This process begins very early as illustrated by the idea that boys dominate the time and efforts of teachers in mixed-gender primary school classrooms.”
“In Ireland, the sexes are often divided from a very young age,” agrees New Yorker Margaret Ward, who’s a regular on TV panel shows.
“Personally, I think this is leading to a lot of social problems.
“If you’re divided into boys and girls from the age of four or five, then the way that you communicate and interact with each other is really based on your gender.”
Men learn about power from a young age, says Mullen. “They’ve grown up competing in team sports and are fuelled by testosterone, whereas women are taught to be the fixer of feelings and aware of emotions.”
“So what happens when we’re backed into a corner in the boardroom is that we end up ‘reacting’ instead of ‘responding’ — and because that reaction has an emotional tone to it, that’s when the men look at each other thinking, ‘There she goes again’.
“You’ve got to remember that it’s only a couple of generations since women were moms only. It’s a huge transition — we’re still in the process of making that transition into the environment of being equals.”
The job of juggling a home, career and kids can be extremely taxing for women.
“Many of the female executives I see are torn between what they need to give to the battles they encounter at the office and the energy they need to get home and fix dinner — especially single mums,” says Mullen.
“There’s only a limited amount of energy to deal with all of that, so a lot of times they take the easy way out and back down.”
As one of Ireland’s top female comedians, Tara Flynn, knows all about taking centre-stage in a roomful of men.
“Usually, it tends to be boys who pipe up during a show, especially if they’ve had too many pints,” says Flynn, a former member of the Nualas comedy group. “I don’t know whether it’s the competitive streak or just some primal chest-beating.
“I’ve had things like, ‘It’s just as well you’re funny, because you’re not good-looking’.
“As a comedian though, you’ve got the mic. Usually, I’ll go over and say, ‘We obviously need to chat’ — and they shut up.
“It’s funny, people have no problem piping up out of a crowd — but as soon as you put a mic in front of them, they clam up.
“People might not believe this, but I’m actually quite shy,” she adds. “I’m not great on confrontation — that’s why I always prefer to have a chat with hecklers rather than just shouting some standard put-down like, ‘That’s what your mam said last night!’
“Don’t get me wrong, I love male company, and — trust me — a group of young women who’ve been drinking since four o’clock is a far more terrifying sight.”
At the Reluctant Speakers Club in Dublin, however, men and women are signing up to become better public speakers in equal numbers.
“While the premise that women speak up less in groups when outnumbered by men is almost assuredly true, when it comes to fear of public speaking, there is precious little difference between the sexes who attend our courses,” says founder Eamonn O’Brien, a public-speaking coach.
“In fact, a recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health in America found that women were only marginally more likely to suffer from glossophobia [fear of public speaking] — 75% compared to 73%.
“The most common reason our clients share with us is the fear of something going wrong and the consequences of that such as feeling daft or being perceived as less credible,” he explains. “When you dig a little deeper, they admit to worrying more about how they may be judged for things they believe might happen versus anything that has actually happened to them before.”
For Irish women who follow the lead of unshrinking violets like Nell McCafferty, Sinead O’Connor or Senator Ivana Bacik, one such fear may be that of being branded a “ball-buster” by male colleagues.
“Being an opinionated woman in society is not easy,” concedes Margaret Ward, who founded Women on Air — a voluntary networking group aimed at giving women the skills and confidence to go on TV and radio.
“I’ve been called ‘formidable’ — that’s probably a nice way of saying, ‘You’re a bitch’.
“Culturally, women with an opinion are frowned upon. But women are 51% of the population — we’re entitled to have an opinion — especially on things like government policy that affects our lives.
“I think the main way that women will overcome this is if they start to see role models that show them it’s OK to have an opinion.”
“It’s not necessarily down to lack of confidence,” agrees psychologist Dr Denise Mullen.
“There are a lot of dynamics at play.
“I think Katie Taylor is a really good example of a woman who is strong yet very feminine and soft-spoken.”
For women looking to express their opinions, going on air can offer lots of opportunities.
Irish women give as good as they get, argues TV3’s Midweek producer Patrick Kinsella.
“Midweek has always had a strong female presenter and predominantly female audience, so we’ve always tried to find a gender balance on the couch.
“Personally, I don’t find any difference between our male and female guests. If anything, when you mix men and women, you often find that there’s a little bit of chivalry where the men will let the ladies finish what they’re saying rather than cut across them — even though, as a producer, you’d like them to cut across.
“We tell all our guests, male and female, that they shouldn’t feel like there’s a pecking order and to jump in at any stage if they disagree with someone else.”
“Recently, I was on a show where the presenter wrote down a note saying, ‘Jump in anytime’,” says WOA founder Margaret Ward. “I tend to jump in anyway, but I thought that was great.
“I’ve worked on a trading floor on Wall Street and if you couldn’t speak up for yourself, you’d just get trampled like an ant under an elephant’s foot,” she adds.
“Irish women are incredibly smart and well-spoken — we’re entitled to have a voice.”
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