The other day, a friend and I were in Toronto’s bustling Kensington Market taking a photo of a feminist book for her Instagram — as you do — when a woman scowled at me. I’m tired of those. She jabbed a finger at the book. Women should stop talking about feminism, she said, and start doing it — marching, protesting, and otherwise breaking the system. I chatted with her a few minutes, with her husband and son standing 20 feet in front of her, urging her the whole time to come on. She was emphatic: women got nowhere discussing equal rights; they had to live the battle, adopt a constant Street Fighter mode, fists out to the world.
I’d encountered this argument many times before in my own reading, writing, and yes, gabbing about equality: You have to live what you believe. But honestly, what does that even mean anymore? The line between saying and doing is blurred, and deciding which is which can be exhausting. Maybe that super-cute “feminist” T-shirt won’t do much to achieve equality, but what if you made the T-shirt yourself? What if you write a book on feminism — or merely tell a friend about one you’ve read? By sorting feminism into actions worthy and unworthy of the name, we’re missing the point entirely.
Namely, that there’s no choice to be made between talk and action, because talk is action. For women, speaking up in a meeting or sparking explicitly feminist conversation can both constitute subversive action. The latter can be our most powerful tool. Consider what researchers call the “engagement continuum” — the theory that informing someone about an issue will encourage that person to help solve the problem, then engage with their community, then effect change themselves. It’s a sequence that plays out over and over again.
Yet while the efficacy of feminist discussion has been proven, it’s equally important for women to raise their voices in other spheres, public and private — at work, at home, at the gym, at parties and club meetings, whatever and wherever. Because in spite of the persistent idea that society is saturated with Loud Women, it’s not even close. In any forum conversation can be measured, men still rule, and overwhelmingly so.
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Take media. In 2015 men accounted for 71 per cent of all sources interviewed by Canadian news organizations, according to last year’s annual Informed Opinions study. Men outnumbered women as expert sources in every possible category, including sports, where 100 per cent of expert interviewees were men. Even in health-related stories male sources dominated, despite women holding 80 per cent of all jobs in the Canadian health industry.
It’s no surprise, then, that in a 2017 report the U.S.-based Women’s Media Centre discovered men had filed more than 60 per cent of all bylines at America’s top 20 news outlets the previous year. What’s more, the study found that men led the conversation around issues we assume women dominate. Men wrote 52 per cent of the bylined articles and opinion pieces about reproductive rights; women wrote just 37 per cent (the remaining 11 per cent had no byline). The divide was even greater in stories about sexual assault: men wrote 55 per cent while women again wrote 37 per cent. (Men were also interviewed more.)
“Media tell us our roles in society,” wrote Julie Burton, the centre’s president, in the report. “They tell us who we are and what we can be. They frame, interpret and amplify our policies and our politics. They tell us who has power and who matters.” In other words, the conversation itself — not just the topic, but who gets to discuss it — matters.
We can, for instance, see how the dynamics of male-dominated media conversations are mirrored in male-dominated workplaces. A study in American Political Science Review notes that even when women have a seat at the boardroom table, they spend proportionately much less time speaking: not even three-quarters of the time men speak. And it’s not simply shyness that keeps women quiet, but the need to survive. When women are judged to be “forceful” or “assertive” in the workplace, their perceived competency drops 35 per cent and their perceived worth drops $15,088. As this study noted, such gender bias also prevents women from succeeding in leadership, where assertiveness and the ability to steer conversation are crucial.
Considering all this, it’s hard to overstate the extent to which speaking is also doing. And if we can actively encourage more women to speak up, they will. Women have confidence in their views, but they’re not confident that what they have to say is valued, Tali Mendelberg, a Princeton professor who co-authored the 2015 study “The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions,” told the New York Times. But once a group signals it welcomes their voices, women speak up more. This doesn’t mean women need hand-holding; rather, it confirms that talk is action all its own.
Women need to keep talking, unapologetically. They need to keep forcing others to make room and keep signalling to one another that their voices do, in fact, matter. I’m glad there are women like the one I met on the street: those who will rally, who will holler and protest. We need them. But let’s not discourage women from speaking or from taking everyday rebellious actions. If enough women speak — just speak — our voices could drown out even the loudest call to “just shut up.”
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