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Tuesday, 16 July, 2024

It’s a question of silence?

It’s a question of silence? As a true Maverick, I am always full of thoughts and ideas. Having been a business owner for most of my adult life, I am used to having ideas and putting them into action. I do this after discussion with my team but ultimately the decision making, and the buck, stops with me.

In that environment I am somewhat protected from ‘normal’ life as few people tell the person who pays them to shut up! Though I have a few long standing team members who do that when it is necessary.

Too much to say?

Lately, when operating outside my normal sphere I have come to realise that I have a life-long problem with men telling me that I talk to much, or that I should shut up. How much of this comes from being a Maverick and how much from being a woman I cannot say. But my natural lively intelligence that makes me want to discuss and explore all things has always enraged and infuriated a certain type of older man.

Women are widely believed in most cultures to be chatterers. We are believed to talk too much, about too little. And there is a cultural bias towards the idea that men speak less, and when they do they use less words and speak of more important things.

My earliest memories are of being told “ssh don’t interrupt your Grandfather” or “ssh don’t bother your Father”. I have no memories at all of anyone telling me not to bother my Grandmother or my Mother. Women, of course, in speech and deed are always interruptible by needs greater than our own.

Something in me rebelled against this – even at the age of three. I can remember climbing onto a table to be eye to eye with my Grandfather and telling him – “no, listen to me..”.

Recently this experience welled up in me when I was working in a collaborative space online. An older man (yes there are still men older than me, though not so many as there were!) helicoptered into the conversation having been absent for weeks and complained there was too much chat, and that he was not properly informed, and there should be boundaries.  

It goes without saying that he thought boundaries should be set by him.

Sweet and supportive women said, ‘sorry it is all too much for you, people have different communication styles’ and started apologising for his assumptions that certain key tasks had been overlooked (they had not) and soothing him down.

The group all accepted his bombast as ‘just what he does’. And I was, for a moment, that three year old again being trained to accommodate my Grandfather’s outbursts. All day long I felt such a strong sense of anger and that feeling of being literally squeezed into a box returned after many years absence.

The research is out of date!

There is a long tail of research indicating that women speak more than men – meaning that we use more words. I have even seen research that men are simply incapable of hearing and comprehending more than so many words in a day (less than I use before breakfast, which may be a trial to my husband if true).

But we all know that research into human behaviour is done by humans with cultural biases. So it is entirely possible that in this area as in so many areas of scientific endeavour that preconceived ideas about women are skewing the research and the outcomes.

Cognition or dominance?

Some research indicates that there is not such a bias overall and in professional settings of small groups men tend to dominate the conversation.  

But what is interesting to me is how women let them. I am not in the mode of ‘victim blaming’ if there is a victim here, but just interested in how, when a man takes the space and starts laying down the rules, I observe women placating him and soothing him rather than telling him where to get off!

From private conversations with women (and with men who have watched this and done nothing) the sentiment is that group cohesion means this has to go unchallenged. Some view such behaviour as just part of a personality and not amendable to change. All in all, the feeling often is that the male contribution is so highly valued that placating him is the highest priority.

When is contribution not enough?

I spent decades in employment law investigating harassment and discrimination claims. One of the things that shocked me in my early days was how often senior management were well aware that they had a problem. But they would look at the financial contribution the individual man made to the organisation.

Often I would be told – look, we know all that, but he brings in £X a year and we simply can’t afford to upset him. This would lead on promptly to offering the women complainants money to leave (and keep quiet).   

Even government departments do this.  

I guess selling our silence is a step up from just giving it away. But it leaves the women (and sometimes the children) that come after us with a problem.

Often as not it would be a woman in HR who was facilitating the deal. It was usually another powerful man who was calling the shots. I used to wonder if they imagined that one day it might be them facing this type of accusation and they were consciously paving the way for similar treatment for them. One or two even said as much.  

I recall one CEO saying “If we sacked every man who slept with his team, we’d have no-one left”. No-one of course meaning no man. A team of women was a team of nobodies!

After that I only agreed to investigate if my contract stated that my report would be mine – unaltered and unedited and no-one would have a ‘quiet word’ and ask me to change what I found.

Once I went into an organisation where the CEO took me to one side and said “If this allegations turn out to be true, I want you to know, he is out of here and with no pay off either,” I almost cried. I seriously considered taking a job there.

It is all about power

Of course men with relatively little power do not get a lot of airtime at meetings too. But at least in theory they have the opportunity to become more powerful by rising through the ranks. But even a very senior woman will be over talked by a junior man at meetings. Not many of us have the opportunity to become more male!

I know I think and speak quickly and often need to leave the people around me time to catch up. That is something I work on constantly. But I’d like to see a time when people don’t rally round and support the ‘anxious’ male who has to dominate all proceedings in order to be able to cope. At least not rallying round by enabling him to carry on doing the same. There are many therapies for anxiety (and drugs too if you want to go that way) but none of the approved therapies include dominating board or committee meetings.   

And yes I know not all men – but way too many. And yes I know not all women facilitate – but way too many. And I know what about women who… It just gets a little old. I have come to the point when I view it as a regrettable obstacle which I no longer go around.

How do you handle it?  

Annabel Kaye
Annabel Kayehttps://www.koffeeklatch.co.uk
Annabel has spent almost 40 years helping growing businesses sort out the practical and legal side of paying people and has been a guest expert on both tv and radio talking about all things gig-economy. She founded KoffeeKlatch in 2009 specifically to support organisations outsourcing to freelancers. She supports micro entrepreneurs with systems and contracts and is running a number of dedicated GDPR support groups. She is a professional speaker and she is well known for combining common sense and humour when tackling compliance and legal subjects.

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