A woman’s place is on the stage

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Michelle Obama, just one of many inspirational female public speakers

Ishbel Smith on why women are under-represented in public speaking arenas – mostly 

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24th April 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Ishbel Smith

Ishbel Smith

It seems from some news sources that reporting the #MeToo backlash takes more editorial space than stories of how to empower women. But stories still emerge on a weekly basis suggesting that all is still not equal in the land of gender opportunity. Most recently within the charity sector, there was great interest in the efforts of the Small Charities Coalition to source and publicise a list of “not white or male” speakers for charities events.

Started as a response to frustration about a lack of diverse representation in key note speakers at third sector events, a list of over 150 names was collated in a weekend. Yet why was such a list needed in the first place, particularly in a sector that prides itself in being more equal than others?

Unfortunately, this story reveals an all too worrying, but sadly predictably recognisable, trend in the world of sought-after speakers. See if you can spot it from the following facts. 

On the leading UK website for sourcing speakers, male speakers outnumber women 7:2. Of the 50 speakers who command payments of more than £20,000 a time, 10 are women.

When Toastmasters International published its list of best movie speeches of all time, none of them were by a female character. Two months later itcreated a special category of best movie speeches by women for Women’s Day.

Business Insider’s Top 19 YouTubers of 2018 lists no women.  

Almost (almost) every list of “the best speech of all time” is exclusively male. Go on – Google it.

Is it then that there are just not enough inspirational female speakers out there? Some initial (and occasionally jaw dropping research) may suggest so. 

Advice abounds that women need to drop that shrill voice tone, forget about pleasing everyone, avoid apologising, stop being so emotional and just try to stand like men. One male voice coach concludes his list of things to do by suggesting that women practice. “Yes, I know it’s boring but there are presenters that will spend three hours checking the spreadsheets, preparing their choice of lipstick, hairstyle, skirt, heels and 20 minutes rehearsing their content,” he states. 

And yet, and yet…Just a little time more with Mr (or is that Ms?) Google reveals another story. Of the 25 most watched TED talks, 40% are by women – that’s much better odds. People (men and women) are clearly choosing to listen to women when they can. Yet they aren’t always been given an equal chance to do so.

So what, some might say. If we are meant to speak as individuals, can’t women be inspired by men in today’s equal society? Well, this when a piece of research published this month by Dr Latu of Queens University Belfast becomes so timely.  Her paper is a gold mine of fascinating information, objectively demonstrating that women perform more effectively as speakers when they are exposed to presentation role models who are successful, visible and female. Her experiments reveal that good male role models do not have the same positive effect and support the conclusion that female leaders' visibility is important because that visibility drives forward other women in an impactful way. 

And so it is important – for moral, scientific and societal reasons – that everyone, especially women, have the equal chance to see women speak. Speak well, speak effectively and speak convincingly. Not so they can check out their “choice of lipstick” as one guru may have it but because they can see that women, like men, communicate best when they communicate as who they are, not as how others may wish them to be. It is a lesson everyone, male or female, needs to bear in mind. You are best when you are you.

So spend a little time on YouTube and treat yourself to an awe-inspiring cornucopia of talks by women as diverse, as inspiring, as compelling, as unique and as effective as any man. Prefix these names to the word “speech” next time you search and see what good role models can do – Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Emma Gonzalez, Sheryl Sandberg, Leslee Udwin, JK Rowling, Aimee Mullins, Meghan Markle, Oprah Winfrey. Share them with your team, share them with your daughters, share them with your sons. And know that whatever Google tells you, a woman’s place is always on that stage.

Ishbel Smith is the founder of Heart In Mouth, a communications training and consultancy firm that specialises in working in the third sector.