Aminatou Sow is a writer and co-founder of Tech LadyMafia. She co-hosts the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend.”
We’re inundated with ridiculous stereotypes about women: “When both husband and wife wear pants, it is not difficult to tell them apart — he is the one who is listening.” “When there are women and geese, there’s noise.” “Women use 20,000 words per day while men use 7,000.”
We get it. Women talk too damn much. But men? Men are patient and stoic listeners. Strong, silent, brooding types. All of them. Any woman who has regular interactions with a man will tell you how viscerally untrue and laughable is the assertion that we talk more than they do.
Events of the past week have made this all too clear. Take, for example, the thrilling performance from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who — before her interruption — used her skills as a former prosecutor to expertly set traps for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and demand hard answers at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday. The optics of her older, very white, male colleagues shutting her down, however, were not great — quite maddening, actually.
Surely these giants in the Senate were not threatened by a woman simply asking questions? She didn’t take up more time than anyone else, but she was accused of not being “courteous” enough and admonished to be nicer. This power dynamic is one that is very familiar to many women of color.
And consider the fallout over Uber’s leadership this week: At an all-hands meeting to discuss recent harassment problems at the embattled transportation company, board member Arianna Huffington said that data shows that having at least one woman on corporate boards helps in recruiting more of them. A fellow board member, billionaire David Bonderman, couldn’t help himself. It was the perfect setup for a joke: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”
Ba-dum-CH! Thank you, thank you, he’ll be here all the week. Just kidding. He had to resign from the board. Guess he should have kept that one to himself. Also, you know who would have never in a million years made that awful joke? A woman on that corporate board.
I guess this is just a hard week for men who won’t shut up.
But here is what’s actually true: The 20,000-words-a-day stat has been widely debunked, but the myth won’t die. In fact, men talk a lot. They also interrupt women at really high rates in social and especially professional contexts. They certainly interrupt us more than they do their male colleagues. Just ask Elizabeth Warren or the women on the Supreme Court. Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll found that women were punished across the board for speaking more than their male counterparts in professional settings. That tiny inner lady voice that tells you to keep quiet and not make waves at work? It’s a survival instinct, not a paranoia.
Ask the women in your life who the real Chatty Cathys in the work meetings are. We’re supposed to propose topics for discussion, prevent lulls and facilitate while men bring the real expertise. They talk more than we ever feel allowed to. This sounds depressing and terribly heteronormative, but it’s unfortunately where we still are in many industries. The interruptions, the mansplaining, telling women that we talk too much when it’s demonstrably false are all ploys to keep us quiet.
None of this is new, of course. Attitudes and offensive proverbs about women talking too much are as old as time. We also have data dating back to the 1970s on the pervasiveness of “manterrupting.” The common refrain now is that it’s attributable to “unconscious bias.” Trust me, when you’re being interrupted for the umpteenth time or listening to a man drone on and on about something you’ve already explained, it doesn’t feel quite so unconscious anymore.
Watching Harris flip her hair and stare down her rude colleagues was beyond heartening. Women around the country are exasperated, but the good news is that we’re no longer afraid to grow loud in calling out these sexist microaggressions. So for once, just shut up and listen to us.