The Public Speaking Enigma — Stop Telling Women They Need More Confidence

I’m terrified of public speaking. You wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t see my pulse explode like lightning behind my eyes while the embodiment of my childhood self scaled a tree. You’d see a polished woman with a gleaming smile, a woman who appears as though she can’t be rattled. I’d pull it off.

But I’m not perfect, and each time you see a talking head, cross-armed, or upright on stage with a professional photo that hails them as a success, I want you to know – it’s likely an illusion. Exposing our inner world to our outer world would require a daunting degree of integrity, a characteristic far less common than we choose to believe, a characteristic too threatening to our prevailing system of hobnobbery and haberdashery.

Let’s opine. What do you think sets my pulse on fire?

“Preparedness,” say some people.

“Lack of self-acceptance,” others believe.

“Breathing deeply will solve the problem.” Hasn’t worked yet.

“Just think of everyone naked.” Awkward. Not the way to go.

“Focus on the thing itself, the “what” of your art, then you won’t worry about what everyone thinks.”

That’s it. The last one: the “what of my art,” as in “what are you looking at?”

Maybe I don’t want to stand in the limelight. Maybe I’m already always in it. Maybe that’s what it means to be a woman in our society.

Maybe I don’t want more holes poked in my existence because it happens too often.

Maybe I’m working on my baggage.

But when I open up the bag and look inside, it’s filled with the same laundry all women are forced to carry. The same never-ending load.

As a teen, I was sent home from public school by the principle for wearing a pair of ripped jeans that had been patched up.

The reason: “they distracted the boys.”

What do ripped jeans have to do with my performance at school? Why was I penalized for their looks?

As a young professional, I was sent home by the head of the department for wearing a pair of mid-length shorts with a blazer (the same as many on my team) on the hottest day of the year. Of course, I was the only one sent home.

The reason: “If someone hits on you (specifically that man who has a crush on you), that will be a liability for us.”

Why was I penalized for his looks?

I once dated a man with credentials that shot through the roof. I was inspired by his commitment to his job. I aspired to commit to his level of productivity. I appreciated his creativity. Before we began dating, I told him, “I don’t understand why men give women flowers. Why do we rip life from the earth so that we can watch it die? What’s beautiful about that?”

So he bought me wooden roses. “These will never die,” he said.

I was smitten.

But that didn’t stop him from breaking into my email account and slut-shaming me to every person in my network ­– from family overseas to my employer – after I tried to leave him. Imagine walking into the office the next day. At the time, there were no laws to protect me, just the stigma of being known as “the woman who was victimized.” Because, of course, this doesn’t happen to other women, a lot of other women.

Sure it does. It happens all the time. You can turn away,  but it’s not unusual. Worse, just look at what happens to women in porn. Oh, sure, porn is “girl power.” Just think for $1400 a pop, you can take it in the rear. The more violent; the more “It’s just an act. She wanted it. She deserved it.”  I wonder, will it be enough to pay for the prolapse too? One only need to look these women in the eyes to see the truth of their pain.

I’m tired of being judged. For working hard and being labeled a perfectionist, for pushing back and being deemed lazy. For being ignored. For being an outlier on a curve of generalities. For not being enough.

We talk about women’s self-confidence as though it’s women who need to change.

We tell them, lean in. Take on more. Apply for that job because your contemporaries are arrogant. Because they will beat their chests like bullies or strut there stuff like peacocks regardless of whether you apply or not.

We take on more. We take on heaps of unpaid labor and childcare. We tidy homes and prepare meals so others can stand on stage. And when we delegate the work, we load it onto, shocker, other low-paid women. We are bought and we are sold. And when a task goes amiss at our jobs, study after study shows that we take the blame. But we are withheld from receiving the credit.

We are held to another standard.

Then when one female superhero hits the privilege jackpot, and the stars align due to her own countless hours of hard work, and she pushes past the glass ceiling, and it appears on camera as though she is levitating down from the heavens, the reality is she’s crawling to the top, wondering, “how long can I balance in these stilettos before someone pushes me off the glass cliff?”

We seldom look at the data and say, let’s assess our hiring practices so that we weigh in the fact that women, as a whole, are more likely to apply for a job only when they are 100% qualified; that women are more heavily reprimanded when they fail; that they take on more at work; that they are less likely to receive credit. We rarely say let’s reshape our collective behavior so that when a woman fails at low priority tasks when she is performing her high priority tasks in an exemplary fashion, we reward her for taking the logical initiative to do what is better for our companies, and our societies. While we’re at it, let’s pay her for that unpaid labor in some way.

Instead, we tell her: be more confident.

Or we pick a fight – “Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you a “stay-at-home” mom or a “working” mom?” Apparently only one of these two mothers is actually working. “Oh, you’re not planning to have children; that’s very selfish of you; you’re a monster.”

And we subconsciously think, “she’s too pretty to be smart or too female to be a genius (that distinction is for other people).”

We require perfection. But we don’t know what perfect is, let alone when it matters. And yet we have no problem using it as a weapon. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” we say. Of course, afterwards we reprimand her heavily for small mistakes, since anything less than perfect qualifies as a mistake.

Isn’t it time that we simply recognize that she is held to another standard … And we account for it?

What does this all have to do with standing in the limelight?

Nothing.

And yet everything.

Now, look at your daughters. Statistically, 1/3 of them will be sexually harassed at work, and 1/6 of them sexually assaulted.

Is that what you want?

Doesn’t it make you sick?

Are you going to say to them, “be more confident?”

Or are you going to say, “I’m going to fix this.”

Stop saying #Metoo. Start saying #IWillFixThis

Citations:

  1. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/78ggyg/carrie-goldberg-is-fighting-revenge-porn-one-court-case-at-a-time
  2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/26/making-sense-of-modern-pornography
  3. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qbvmz3/a-rosebud-by-any-other-name-would-smell-like-shit
  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/
  5. https://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2015/10/15/a-feminism-where-leaning-in-means-leaning-on-others
  6. https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified
  7. https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2014/04/28/act-now-to-shrink-the-confidence-gap/
  8. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/07/23/glass_ceiling_study_women_and_people_of_color_are_penalized_for_valuing.html
  9. http://www.forbes.com/sites/petercohan/2012/07/24/marissa-mayers-glass-cliff/#75bcc5a61185
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/14/perfect-girls-five-women-stories-mental-health
  11. https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking_in_the_United_States 
  13. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/female-ceo-blame_us_58100af0e4b001e247df34c5
  14. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/671146/?sc=dwhn
  15. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/upshot/when-teamwork-doesnt-work-for-women.html
  16. http://beta.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-girls-boys-brilliant-20170126-story.html
  17. http://time.com/money/4561314/women-work-home-gender-gap/
  18. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sexual-assault-statistics_us_58e24c14e4b0c777f788d24f 

Tara Makhmali is the author of MISSWIRED, a work of literary fiction, and the CEO of CommonSmarts Media, LLC.

Available for purchase on Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle