Let Her Speak: How Subtle Sexism Prevents Women From Speaking Their Minds

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It happened again. I was sitting in a small upper-division Humanities class occupied mostly by women. The teacher had just asked an abstract question about one of last night’s readings, and like many small classes at UCI, the students sat silently in their desks, albeit anxious from the prolonged awkward silence.

I decide to take a jab at an answer first. In the middle of explaining myself, the teacher interjects and blankets my idea with an entirely different construction of his own. Another woman shares her opinion and is interrupted before her third sentence. A third poses her thought as a question. A fourth provides a disclaimer before allowing her unique idea to speak for itself. In all cases, our thoughts were not recognized as being owned by us; rather, they were all prescribed with an uncomfortable feeling of invisibility that was either self-imposed or invited by an external factor.

It happened again in office hours. The professor spent as much as 40% of my visit with him talking about an entirely different student — a male classmate. This male student and I frequently sat next to each other, and shared our opinions on questions aand readings almost equally, but the professor only seemed to remember his eloquence, perception and intellect over anything I ever said throughout the 10 week course. In fact, I don’t recall bringing up the male student in our office hours, and yet there we were talking about someone else who was not even occupying the space between the professor and me. I left his office feeling unheard and unseen.

It happened a third time while interviewing a Social Sciences professor for an article I was writing about domestic violence rates in Orange County. This article was never written, because upon entering his office hours to speak with him, he scolded me for interrupting a meeting he was having with a male student just moments before. Apparently, my presence at the entrance of his office was too distracting, despite the fact that I had arrived on time and was at a safe enough distance away from his meeting that I wasn’t intruding on their privacy. I left just moments later once the professor asked me angrily if I had even read his research before booking this appointment (which I did). He had assumed I had come unprepared. He assumed my earnestness and curiosity was a weakness instead of a strength. I left because our discussion was over before it even began. An article was never written. My voice was never shared. His research was never cited by me.

In so many ways, we have arrived at a new world. Now, we have Title IX, we have the Equal Pay Act, we have a newly-reaffirmed VAWA, we have a female Presidential Candidate, we have #LeanIn and #YesAllWomen and #HeForShe, we have more women in the workforce and academic institutions than ever before. And yet, these are matters that have escalated in visibility barely a half-generation ago.

We can still find traces of the old prejudices, the same bad jokes that jab at women’s clothing and emotions and intellect, the same subconscious biases of what women should be doing with their time, money and energy. The archaic blueprint of misogyny is still there, although substantial efforts have been made to correct them. On our campus, subtle sexism is both hard to point out and hard to articulate. However, that doesn’t mean that it is nonexistent.

In 2014, The Atlantic’s cover story was a piece titled “The Confidence Gap,” which closely dissects how even some of the most influential and powerful women in the world have an abyssal divide between confidence and intellect unmatched by their male counterparts. That is, women have been socially conditioned to simply have less confidence in their own abilities, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This lack of confidence comes in the form of attributing “luck,” to their success instead of skill or ambition. It can also be seen in the form of qualifying statements before asserting an opinion: “I guess…,” “I’m wondering if…,” “kind of,” “I’m not too sure, but….”

The piece observed several studies and reached an overall conclusion that men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance, while women tend to underestimate both. In either case, third parties such as university professors, employers and mentors of any kind tend to attribute more weight to a man’s word or opinion over women. However, the curious thing is that their performances don’t appear to differ in quality. It’s all tragically in the perception.

With all this trajectory in mind, a university classroom that disallows women to speak, one that interrupts their thought-processes or devalues their opinion will not help women overcome an internalized, socially-conditioned sense of silence.

A Harvard study conducted by The Bok Center in the early 2000s responds to the changing tides of contemporary classroom learning, and how the integration of consciousness to the struggles of individual students is key to an inclusive learning space.

“As teachers, it is important for us to understand the shifting pressures affecting this generation of students if our efforts are to be relevant to them. Our attempts to promote standards of equality may seem awkward to students for whom the gender roles of the past have new meaning, and are adopted or rejected for different reasons than our own,” the study argues.

That is to say, if an entire institution was created at Harvard University to specialize in diversity and inclusivity in the context of gender issues, then that probably means that there is a fundamentally flawed interaction present in the way academic institutions interact with female students.

So, where do we go from here? What, if anything, can one do today, right now, that matters to reversing the disempowering nature that certain academic spaces provide?

Ironically, it seems natural to turn to an infamously nonacademic medium: spoken word, otherwise known as “performance poetry,” which is an art form devoid of title or academic hierarchy.

A piece titled “9 Things I would like to Tell Every Teenage Girl” by Melissa Newman-Evans is a powerful reminder of what actually matters for women today. It’s an empowering soliloquy on overcoming the violence, oppression and internalized shame brought down to women at too young of an age.

Right at the gates, she roars: “The world is trying to kill you. It is trying to steal your voice.”

At this, the audience hoots and haws. She pauses, and adds:

“Kill it back.”

So, how do you kill it back? What does that look like? What does it feel like?

For Newman-Evan, it means “to hold up your sisters.” And by sisters, she really means every woman around you.

“The girl with the jacked-up teeth and the thrift store jeans is your sister. The girl who fucks girls is your sister. The girl who used to be called Jake but is now called Jane is your sister. The cheerleaders who are trying so hard to kill you are STILL your sisters.”

These powerful, rattling words are a call to action to spread empathy and empower one another — it is a plea to bravely straighten one’s posture and assert oneself either through one’s voice, one’s emotions, one’s body, or one’s intellect. Although the journey toward that is roughened with internal negotiation, speaking up unapologetically is important. The key is to allow oneself to make those social assertions and, more importantly, to empower others to do the same. For those that occupy spaces of privilege or power, it is especially crucial to understand ways one can allow others to share their voice.

While women and girls occupy spaces in academia, the work force and other niches of public life, it is important that they feel their presence actually means something.

To reiterate, the one grievance that I hope is addressed by UC Irvine faculty, staff and administration is to please — for goodness’ sake — let us speak. Allow us to fully form our thoughts and sentences without interjection. Call on us when we raise our hand, no matter how high it is raised or how far in the discussion the class has gone. Praise us for our ideas, our bravery. Remember our names. Hold faculty board meetings and talk about this. Share ideas with your cohort on how to provide inclusion and empower everyone to articulate their ideas.

For all we know, these campus spaces are the only ones some women are brave enough to occupy without internalized shame or apology. Please remember that.

Kelly Kimball is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at kkimball@uci.edu.

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