Why we need to get better at talking and listening, and how feminism can help

We need to change the conversation around sexist microaggressions

Second-wave feminists have taught us that power relations shape our interpersonal and everyday interactions. Indeed, every time I speak to women about their experiences of working with men, they tell me that they’re tired of being at the receiving end of vulgar jokes, patronizing remarks, and male cliquishness.

When hyper-confident and powerful male steamrollers stifle their speech, too many women say they feel powerless. That’s because we still live in a world that prioritizes men’s voices, egos and ambitions, but not women’s.

There are tons of resources out there for women — from articles about how to stop men talking over you to blog posts listing ways to respond to mansplaining — but much of the advice is questionable. Use an assertive tone. Talk without pauses. Assume a power pose. Lean in. But why is the burden on us to be heard and respected?

Our focus should shift away from developing strategies for women to modify their behavior to fit masculine speaking and leadership styles. Instead, we should apply a feminist approach to relationships and group dynamics, and get better at talking and listening to each other.

Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once

We’ve been brought up to believe that women talk more than men, but research shows that this idea is totally misguided. Sociolinguist Deborah Cameron found that in most situations — like business meetings, political debates or TV interviews — men take up 75% of the speaking time, which consequently also leaves decision-making mostly to men.

Research also shows that women are more likely to be interrupted than men by both women and men, especially when men outnumber women.

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Even when women speak an equal amount to men, listeners perceive women to be talking more than men. This explains the unfair stereotype that women are ‘the chattier sex’.

Where only token numbers of women and minorities are present, organizational culture tends to become competitive and hierarchical, putting great pressures on the minority to conform to culture of the majority. But should we expect women to be gender bilingual and adapt to masculinist culture — mediated by race and class — that encourages competition for speaking time and hierarchy in decision-making?

I can’t recount the number of times I’ve heard men say, “if someone talks over you, just ask them to listen. What’s the big deal?”. I wish it was that easy.

Responding to sexist microaggressions — like mansplaining, tone policing, suggestive jokes, slut-shaming and victim-blaming — in the workplace is like walking on egg shells, especially if it involves dealing with high-status men.

Whitesplaining (white women are of course also guilty of whitesplaining women of color). Screenshot of a Jezebel article by Kara Brown.

We are held back by our fear of sounding angry, emotional or unprofessional in masculinized work spaces that devalue emotions, and we worry about reconfirming gendered biases that have been levied against us all our lives. The ‘angry Black woman’ trope makes this especially difficult for women of color.

After years — maybe decades — of being sexualized, objectified, ridiculed, corrected, shamed, stereotyped, harassed and silenced on a regular basis within a culture where such behavior is perceived as normal, we start to internalize the hidden lessons behind each of these manifestations of misogyny. We start to believe we are inferior, inept, weak, irrational, and less valuable.

Getting a word in when you’re a woman

Mansplaining and manterruption are the most well-known speech-related sexist microaggressions. Although they are commonly lampooned as millennial feminist lingo, they help to reveal how our culture sees women as empty vessels to be filled with men’s wisdom and knowledge.

Sexist and racist micro-aggressions are so prevalent in work environments, because they are used to reassert control and influence, particularly when women’s skills, knowledge, and creativity are perceived as threatening to one’s position within a given organization or company.

If you’ve ever tried telling your colleague that their harmful behavior is undermining you, you probably also experienced gaslighting. Gaslighting is also about power, and it’s a manipulative practice of overwriting another person’s reality with denial and counter-accusations.

Gaslighting is, according to Shea Emma Fett, “the result of a societal framework where we pretend everyone is equal while trying simultaneously to preserve inequality.”

Sexist and racist microaggressions help perpetuate different forms of oppression, and they are the reason why conversations about inequality can be so difficult with someone who doesn’t share a particular experience. You can be gaslighted and criticized for being too sensitive or politically correct when you call out someone’s behavior as sexist, racist, LGBTQ-phobic, classist, ageist etc.

Using a feminist approach to get better at talking to each other

Whether we realize it or not, we generally tend to follow ‘the androcentric rule’, which tell us that the linguistic behavior of men is normal and that the linguistic behavior of women is something to be regulated or penalized.

Rather than teaching men to be more polite and considerate, people teach women how to fit masculine speaking and leadership styles, so others will take them more seriously. Damned if you don’t, damned if you do.

To subvert this, we should create alternative models of overcoming disagreements, sharing ideas, and working together. A tried and tested alternative is ‘feminist process’.

It envisions an organizational and work culture based on self-awareness, consensus-building and collaborative decision-making, all of which are rarely taught or encouraged in contemporary Western liberal societies.

The goal of feminist process is to foster a collaborative and participative climate where all participants feel safe and valued, including the most disadvantaged and least confident.

A fundamental aspect of feminist process is the principle of respectful dialogue. At its core, mindful speaking and active listening aim to discourage defensive or demeaning comments, and instead encourage empathy and the valuing of one another’s point of view.

Feminist process emphasizes being aware of oneself, and at the same time, being aware of others.

When I participated in events or joined organizations that practiced feminist process, I immediately noticed that they also recognized the importance of emotions and subjective experience. As the name suggests, it’s an ongoing process of providing a space and setting aside time for everyone to share their concerns and find solutions to people’s specific needs, including things like balancing work, family and community commitments.

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The aim should never be to solely achieve policy, profit or election goals, but to also make people feel a part of the group. This is done by maintaining morale, nurturing different needs, and building in diversity.

Let’s reboot

Based on my own experience of working in mixed-groups and offices, an effective way to practice feminist process is to collectively develop a few rules and bottom-lines that can guide conversations.

A few examples include: taking the time to set common goals for meetings and actions; rewarding listening before participating; rewarding stepping back to make space for others to participate; inviting both group and self-reflection; making ‘I’ statements; agreeing that side conversations, eye-rolling and muttering under your breath are not allowed; apologizing or asking for an apology whenever needed.

These guidelines should be developed, adjusted and negotiated further, depending on your group composition or circumstances. It’s amazing how many times I have seen these simple rules broken even in radical feminist groups, because they were not agreed upon in advance.

Feminist process takes time and practice, but it has the power to completely transform how mixed groups communicate and work together, because everyone feels appreciated but also responsible for their own actions.

To some this might sound like I’m proposing an unrealistic hippie utopia, and it’s true that the ultimate goal is to affect wider social change by infusing our relationships with shared democratic practice. But it has been done before.

Even more importantly, feminist process can train us to get better at interrogating power structures within organisations, and create new styles of organizational management.

And we need it badly; our fascination with charismatic individuals should be replaced by the pursuit of collectivity, our impulse to control should be replaced by a desire for learning, and our need to talk should be replaced by an eagerness to listen.


Iva Petkovic is part of the EU Panel Watch team. She has been working for Brussels-based human rights non-profits for five years, and is passionate about gender equality, minority rights, cultural diversity, and social justice.


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