One of this season’s more thought provoking holiday family photos. (Photo: Hannah Hawkes Photography/Facebook)

Article published by: Sarah Ross, Buckrail.

How speaking up presents a different set of challenges for half the population.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Women have a reputation for speaking too much. A Christmas photo that surfaced on the internet this year depicts a family of five posing in their holiday attire. The mother and two daughters have duct tape over their mouths, while the father and son smile, holding a sign that reads, “Peace on Earth.”

Proverbs across the world solidify the stereotype that women speak too much, and that most of what they say is inane chatter:

“Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails–they are never still.” – English

“The North Sea will sooner be found wanting in water than a woman at a loss for words.” – Jutlandic

“Where there are women and geese, there’s noise.” – Japanese.

However, research demonstrates that the opposite is true. Women are consistently interrupted and dominated in one-on-one conversation as well as in professional and public settings. In a cultural moment where the idea of “free speech” is salient, what does free speech mean when, in the most basic building blocks of speech, half the population is not comfortable expressing themselves, are never given the opportunity to do so, or are dismissed when they are?

The definition of free speech appears simple enough—the ability to speak without restraint or censorship from the government. We believe that we have free speech, but most of us don’t protest the government on a daily basis or publicly remark on controversial issues.

For the average citizen, where does free speech take form?

Dennis Lubwama, an architect from Uganda working in Jackson for the year, believes that people herald the value of free speech without considering what that entails. “People believe they have free speech,” he explained, “but there is so much hard work to do to make sure that speech is actually being used ethically and equitably.”

Some of that hard work is within gender relations.

A study published earlier this year by the Journal of Language and Social Psychology examined the conversations of 20 men and 20 women, and found that men interrupted woman 2.6 times over the course of a three-minute conversation, while women interrupted men just once. Work by Australian author Dr. Dale Spender suggests that men perceive that women are dominating the conversation when they speak just 30 percent of the time.

This tendency becomes exaggerated in public settings. According to a 2012 study conducted by Brigham Young University and Princeton, men take up 75 percent of the average professional meeting. Similarly, in a 1985 study of Harvard classrooms, men spoke two and a half times longer than their female classmates when they had a male instructor. Conversely, when the instructor was a female, women spoke three times as often. This suggests that men feel emboldened to dominate conversation when those in authority are also men. In a world where leaders are still predominantly men, this has huge implications.

In the 2014 book, The Confidence Code, two female authors studied women in leadership positions. Though women make up about half of almost all professional fields, leadership in most fields is still overwhelmingly male. As women gain access to leadership, they become quieter. When they speak up, they are perceived as overly aggressive, or called a “bitch.” According to the authors, “The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol gets.” When a man walks into a room, “they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise … women, however, are assumed incompetent until they prove themselves.”

According to the Center for American Progress, women make up 45 percent of associates in the legal field, but are only 19 percent of board directors and comprise just 2 percent of CEOs. Similarly, women make up 35 percent of physicians and doctors, but are only 16 percent of medical school deans. Only 19 percent of Congress members are women. And out of the 12,180 people who have ever served in Congress, there have been 307 total women, only 54 of whom were women of color.

The OpEd Project, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of by-lines by women, asserts that men “narrate the world.” According to Time Magazine, 63 percent of by-lines in print, internet, and wire news media are by men. Men made up 83 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors for the 250 most profitable films in the United States in 2014.

Issues of free speech often surface during highly politicized moments, such as when someone burns a flag, when the KKK holds a rally, when protesters occupy private land. But what does it look like to defend free speech in quotidian life when most don’t participate in events such as these?

Perhaps it means reframing our perception of what speech is politicized and what speech should be defended. In our daily lives, we perpetuate the silencing of women in conversation, which translates into stifled conversation in classrooms, boardrooms, Congress, and media. It is easy to assert the value of free speech, but difficult to ensure that this value actually has traction in people’s lives, that it means something to those attempting to use their voices. PJH

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