Shut Up For Social Justice: Adjusting Women's Percentages

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I was recording a podcast with the fabulous Monica Byrne last night – and as I always do when I’m talking with a woman, I worry about percentages.
Because if you put a woman in a conversation with a dude, studies show she’ll get less time talking.  Like, way less time.  Because men are far more likely to interrupt a woman (often specifically to assert dominance) – and according to some unsourced studies that jine up with my personal experience, women are perceived to dominate a conversation when they occupy as little as 25% of it.
So whenever I listen to a panel or a podcast composed of mixed genders, I want to keep a very elaborate shot-clock that tracks the amount of time each person speaks.  Take Writing Excuses, for instance – one of my favorite podcasts on writing, fifteen minutes long and addictive as popcorn.  The sole female host of the show is Mary Robinette Kowal, one of four hosts – and even accounting for the fact that Brandon Sanderson does the intros and outros, I’m pretty sure that were I do to a lot of annoying record-keeping, I’d find that Mary doesn’t get 25% of the air time.
The problem is that this is not actually a problem.  Howard, Brandon, and Dan are all fascinating hosts.  Everyone on that show has something interesting to say.  Even if Mary is, say, 19% of the conversation, her 19% is still pure gold, and a little less Mary is balanced out in some way because Brandon’s got some relevant insights.
And there are always good excuses as to why a given woman may not speak up as much on a panel.  Some people are quiet.  Some people don’t have much to say on this particular take on the topic.  Some people are more introverted, and may cede ground quicker when someone interrupts to take the floor.
That’s some people, not women – all of these factors apply to men as well.   I’ve done tons of panels and seen laconic dudes, confused dudes, and easily-spooked dudes.
Yet at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that as a percentage, the guys have managed to outspeak the women once again.
And I like Monica.  I want to hear what Monica has to say.  I’m excited by Monica’s big ol’ brain, because when she drops her mad wisdom she inspires all these other cool thoughts in me, and if I’m on a podcast with her I want to tell her what just occurred to me.  And I have stories I want to unveil, and insights I came up with….
…and if I’m not careful, I’m like a big ol’ overexcited puppy.  I won’t mean to dominate the conversation, but it’s like trying to talk when a Golden Retriever wants your attention.  You’ll be in the middle of outlining some exotic thought, and I’ll just roll over and show my furry belly and whoops, I’ve derailed you out of sheer playfulness.
That innocent intent does not, however, make it cool.
So when I talk, I try to be aware of time.  I try to be an enabler for the women’s conversation – if I know their books, I will take the anecdote I’m telling and end it with a question for them that’s custom-designed for them to tee off of.  I set a little mental confirmation window before I interrupt – “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO LESSEN HER TIME? Y/N.”  I wait a little longer at the end of their stories, just to see if that two seconds’ of silence draws out anything more.  If I’m on a panel and some other dude interrupts, I will allow him to finish and then say, pointedly, “But getting back to what Virginia was saying…”
There are all these techniques you can do to ensure that you do not dominate the conversation.  And I am not doing this because I believe I am uninteresting!  Hell, I think I’m fascinating.  If I didn’t have that confidence, I wouldn’t go on a podcast.  But I also think that my fellow guests are fascinating, and if I’m being mindful of the circumstances then I make room for them.
That’s just a courtesy on panels and podcasts in general.  But in specific, given that women are frequently curb-stomped when it comes to getting their percentage of the conversation, me learning to mute and enable feels like justice.
(TWO NOTES: One, if you wanna hear this talk it’ll be live in about two weeks.  I’ll letcha know.  Monica and I may giggle a lot.
(Two, if you’d like me on your podcast, I am in Severe Book-Flogging Mode, as the Book Of Doom is due out in three weeks, and I’ll cheerfully yammer away for your entertainment.  I do not promise to be good.  But hoo boy, I can be enthusiastic.)

1 Comment

  1. Yet Another Laura H
    Feb 15, 2015

    Recently struck by this watching the Cracked Writers’ Room videos. Katie Willert has to gnaw a dude’s elbow open to get uninterrupted talk time.

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