Whilst a young lecturer at university, historian Mary Beard learnt the importance of using your own voice rather than imitating others.
When I was in my 20s and early 30s, a very junior university lecturer, I rarely opened my mouth during seminars or meetings. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say, but that I couldn’t quite find a way of saying it in public that sounded right.
People are often amazed at this – as silence, for me, is no longer a problem. But I vividly remember the frustration of not being able to find a way of getting into what was normally a very male discussion. And I strongly recall the embarrassment at what tended to happen if I did manage to get my contribution in: a few awkward moments of silence after I had finished my bit, and then the man who had been speaking before would take over again with, “As I was saying…” It felt like a put-down, and was probably worse than not being able to speak at all.
I cannot imagine that there are many women on the planet who have not had similar experiences of not being able to find a voice in public, or (to put it more accurately, perhaps) of not being listened to or taken seriously.
I am often asked how I broke through this particular glass ceiling. And the correct answer is that I do not really know and I cannot reconstruct in any detail what changed. Some female solidarity certainly helped. At seminars, the few women in the room started to get together and agree that we would never allow there to be one of those awkward silences. We would leap in and say, “That’s a really useful point,” and run with it for a bit. That lessened the embarrassment.
I suspect that getting older helped, thickening the skin and adding a bit of boldness. I remember one time, before I regularly opened my mouth, asking one male friend after a meeting if he had actually noticed that it was only the men who spoke. Of course, he hadn’t; it just seemed normal.
But the big change for me was something quite different. When I hear myself speak now, I really do hear myself. Sometimes I’m being smart, sometimes I wish I hadn’t said it, sometimes I think I could have chosen my words better – but, whatever, it is me that I’m hearing. During all those years when I couldn’t open my mouth, I think I was trying to speak the way I thought you ought to speak in public; and that, of course, was like a man, right down to the deep, husky tones. Of course, I felt awkward and disconnected from the words that came out of my mouth. I was acting a part, mouthing lines that belonged to someone else, not speaking – as I do now – in my own way.
How that change came about, I just don’t know. But the problem is part of a much bigger one that affects women wherever they are in public life, from the Houses of Parliament to the university seminar room or the office meeting.
The image most people have of authority looks and sounds like a man. If I shut my eyes and try to picture a prime minister, what comes into my head is a man in a suit, even though until a few months ago we had a woman in No 10. I suspect that I am typical here of most people in the country, male or female. (Even more worrying, if I shut my eyes and try to picture a professor, I see a bearded boffin in a lab coat – even though, for heaven’s sake, I am a professor.)
And that is why so many women who want to claim authority end up copying men. They lower their voices (Margaret Thatcher famously took voice training classes to do just that). And they dress Angela Merkel-style in clothes that are as close to a suit without actually cross-dressing. It may work for some, as indeed it did for Thatcher and Merkel. But it still comes at a cost, as if women are always forced to act the part, and to ape power rather than ‘own it’. Perhaps even more to the point, it accepts the problem and adjusts to it, rather than challenging it head-on.
If power and authority are still seen and heard as male, we should be working to ensure that is no longer so. We surely want a world in which people reckon the woman with the high voice just as worth listening to as the man with the deep one – not one in which women have to pretend to be something they are not if they want to be taken seriously.
Mary appears in The Book Of Gutsy Women because she writes brilliantly about how powerful women have been treated since the beginning of recorded history, and how we all have to be speaking up, because we’ve been prevented from doing so for so long.
Photography: David Titlow
Additional images: Getty