I recently read I am Malala, the biography by Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing up for education in Pakistan. She opens the book by noting that in her culture it is a “gloomy day when a daughter is born.” We like to think that our United States culture is far superior to that and that both male and female children are celebrated, which, for the most part, I think is true. Our welcoming climate for girls and women begins to chill a bit later, when career choices and upward mobility are in question.
This recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed has me thinking about the tremendous opportunities that academic institutions have at this moment to make the environment for women warmer. Here is one small but meaningful way we can create a more welcoming climate for women:
Give women the microphone — at commencements, ceremonies, meetings, conferences and any other significant events. Even if the top power positions are held by men (president, provost, deans), event organizers should make certain to include at least one woman at the podium–a woman on faculty, an administrator, an alum or a student.
Why? Because to speak is to have power and it signals to women graduates, parents and all attending that women at the institution matter. They matter enough to have positions of power that bring them to the microphone. While we may not have as many women at the top of organizations that we should, we can create environments that support women by having women on the stage speaking at events, whether they are the top of the organization or not.
June Cohen of TED Talks, laments that it is difficult to get women speakers, and offers two main reasons, echoed in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. Cohen says that would-be women speakers are more likely to shy away from speaking events because they claim not to be as well prepared as they think they ought to be. She also states that women do not see speaking in public as one of the main parts of their jobs. She offers some very good tips, including be persistent. Institutions need to be persistent about making opportunities for women to be seen and heard. And, women need to understand the powerful impact they have on our culture and future women leaders every time they take to a podium. Having women at the podium changes organizations for the better.
I want to encourage anyone who is responsible for organizing events to be certain to include women at the podium. It sends a powerful message to your audience that women matter in organizations. They are not just silent, bit part characters, they are leading actors.
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted: “Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. It is to bring another out of his bad sense into your good sense.”
By giving the power of speech to women, we take away the bad sense that women are not present and add the good sense that women at the podium profit everyone.