We were passing the history textbook around the class, as you do when you are in year 10, reading a section each as we went. I couldn’t tell you what we were learning about that day because all I can recall is that I felt my heartbeat quicken and my breaths shorten as it got closer and closer to my turn.
As it got passed to my shaky hands, 30 pairs of eyeballs were on me and my voice began to tremble as I spoke. I covered it with a cough and quickly moved it onto the next person.
But, that was just the start. More than 15 years later and the thought of public speaking still terrifies me – so much so that I have spent my further education and career avoiding it, as much as possible.
Why am I so scared? Is it the fear that I have to prove myself against men – the gender most prominently seen speaking into a microphone - because society has made it this way? Perhaps. It probably goes much deeper than that but as we celebrate 100 years since women got the vote it is clear that we are still far from equal to our male counterparts when it comes to getting our voice heard.
Our femininity still, unfortunately, defines our pay and it is expected to take more than 100 years to see any change to that. It was recently revealed that Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning actress Michelle Williams was paid just 1% of her male co-star’s salary when re-shooting scenes for ‘All the Money in the World’. She was reportedly paid a mere $1,000 to Mark Wahlberg’s $1.5 million.
At the Golden Globes, Natalie Portman criticised the lack of female representation when presenting the Best Director category when she said: “And here are the all-male nominees.” This award hasn’t been presented to a woman since Barbara Streisand won it back in 1984. Yet, Streisand herself was able to suggest two potential nominees on Twitter including Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman.
Later that evening Oprah Winfrey’s passionate speech had everyone in the room on their feet and hanging on her every word after she became the first black woman to win the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contribution to the world of entertainment. In a speech that focused on sexism, she said: “It is not lost on me that, at this moment, there is some little girl watching as I become the first black woman [to win this award].”
Beyond receiving less pay for the same work and being objectified, women also aren’t being given an equal opportunity to voice their opinions. For years, TV executives have been accused of sexism due to their failure to put women on panel shows. In 2014, the BBC announced that every TV comedy panel show would ‘include at least one woman’. A step forward, perhaps, but that still means that one female is there as the ‘token woman’. This undermines their appearance and actually makes them reluctant even if asked. Speaking in The Telegraph, comedian Jo Brand explained that women feared they would not get a word in edgeways, would be edited to look stupid, if not patronised, marginalised or simply dismissed.
If you need any more convincing of the importance of women being a part of shows such as this, at the end of 2017 Jo Brand was applauded by the audience of Have I got News For You after reprimanding the all-male panel for not taking sexual harassment seriously.
She began by saying: “As the only representative of the female gender here today…” in response to Ian Hislop’s suggestion that allegations coming from Westminster were not ‘high-level crime’. Brand continued: “It doesn’t have to be high-level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons… for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.’
And this isn’t the only place we aren’t hearing enough female voices – why are conferences struggling to find women to take to the stage? After being critisicised for their lack of female representation, annual technology conference CES claimed finding enough women for the 2019 line-up will be a ‘challenge’.
In response, Pip Jamieson, has complied a list that features 50 of the best female speakers. The founder of The Dots creative network, who has spoken at more than 50 panels, talks and events, says she has herself felt like the ‘token woman’ on occasion.
Clemmie Telford, a freelance creative director, who features on the list, told me: “It's often a catch 22 situation. The same people have been seen on stages for a long time and they are male. Because it’s a tried, tested and successful formula, it's all too easy to default to using them again and again. However, as per, Pip Jameson's call to arms 'enough is enough', there are tons of great female speakers out there, it's time to change the ratio as a matter of course.”
But is the stereotype of men being more confident – and therefore better – speakers even right? A survey conducted by Speakers Corner found that, although men tend to be more confident in their day-to-day life than women, women are actually more confident when it comes to public speaking, while men feel much more nervous about the prospect. The company did, however, find that women are still nervous when it comes to speaking at external events and conferences and believe this may be down to the fact they are still trying to smash the glass ceiling.
Hayley Smith, who recently delivered a Ted X Talk, said: “We have to shout louder to get our message across, and to be listened to. So we have to be doubly confident in speaking.”
It is vital that women’s voices are heard, they can’t – and shouldn’t – be silenced. If women aren’t given a voice how can we ever expect to fight the war for equality, let alone win it?
As for me, perhaps if women are more empowered to use their voice… maybe, just maybe, I will feel more confident to find my own.