Friday, September 22, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Janet Yellen on holding women back

In America, the chair of our central banking Federal Reserve System (known familiarly as "The Fed") speaks frequently, but with care. Pronouncements by the Fed chair--currently economist Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold the post--are read like tea leaves for signals of change in the economy, and hold great weight. The Fed chair's speeches are transcribed and published routinely to aid in that tea-leaf-reading. And like tea leaves, boy, are they dry, the result of all the anxiety around these formal speeches. I like to imagine the Fed's offices with the motto "Neutral language a specialty" carved above the door. Forget your storytelling and personal anecdotes. Good, solid, plainspoken economics are the thing.

In a speech the New York Times called "unusually narrative and unusually personal," Yellen broke with that pattern at her alma mater, Brown University, for a conference marking the 125th anniversary of women's admission to the university. Also unusual was the coverage it drew, from the likes of the New York Times, Bloomberg, Fortune, and other financial press

While her premise--that the economy could grow more if working women had better support--was fiscal in nature, the speech was peppered with examples of real women who had studied at Brown, and experienced setbacks in their efforts to pursue learning and careers. One of them, a mathematician who graduated in 1923, was Yellen's husband's aunt, Elizabeth Stafford Hirschfelder.

It was the mix of the two styles--personal and plainspoken--that made this speech a success. Noting estimates that the U.S. could boost its yearly economic output by 5 percent if women could participate at the same level as men in the workforce, Yellen said:
Evidence suggests that many women remain unable to achieve their goals. If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy at a time when the aging of the population and weak productivity growth are already weighing on economic growth.
Let's reflect for a moment on what "participate at the same level as men in the workforce means." Not having to endure and fight harrassment, nor having to quit a good job because of it. Getting hired at the same rate as men, and having as many opportunities to move and find opportunity. Getting the same rate of pay and advancement and benefits. Not having to leave the workday or meetings or business trips early to handle childcare or home chores. Not having to secure childcare. Not having to use personal vacation time for any of the above. Having equitable parental leave. And that's just the short list.

"We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back," Yellen said, quoting Malala Yousafzai, who served as her inspiration for the speech. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • It does make a difference when women speak on women's issues: I'll let Bloomberg say it: "It really does make a difference when the chair of the Federal Reserve is a woman. On Friday, Janet Yellen gave a detailed, 18-page speech at her alma mater, Brown University, making clear just how important the topic of women and work is to her. Without taking anything away from her predecessors at the Fed, it’s hard to imagine Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, or Paul Volcker giving such a talk." And I'll add: Those men could have tackled this economic issue at any time, of course. But they didn't. So here again, women pick up the slack to highlight their issues.
  • Enliven data with real people: In addition to her own relative, Yellen drew on examples of real women graduates of Brown University from the points in history she wanted to illustrate, taking their stories from oral histories collected by the university. And from time to time, she used herself as a reference, noting that in her own profession of economics, she's an anomaly as well, since just one-third of the Ph.D. degrees issued in the field go to women. Even today.
  • Finish the thought: It's been said many times that once women decide to have children, their advancement is limited, particularly in high-powered professions that require long hours and overtime, or excessive travel. Often, the conversation ends there, a fait accompli. But Yellen completes the thought with what could be, if we just tried a little harder: "Advances in technology have facilitated greater work-sharing and flexibility in scheduling, and there are further opportunities in this direction. Economic models also suggest that while it can be difficult for any one employer to move to a model with shorter hours, if many firms were to change their model, they and their workers could all be better off." Hint, hint.
The Fed published the speech here, and you can watch it in the video below. Yellen's remarks begin at the 11:42 mark, but don't miss the sparkling introduction given by Brown University President Christina Paxson that precedes it.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

When a great speech comes back to haunt you: Speaker credibility

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi has become a beloved figure, thanks to all the trouble she has endured in pressing for human rights. But today, the activist-turned-leader of her country is under fire for failing to condemn publicly the systematic persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohinga, a Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The persecution includes burning entire villages, raping women, and shooting adults and children for no reason; some 300,000 have been forced to leave the country for Bangladesh. And her words in two famous speeches are now being used to measure her non-response, because they are so different in content and tone from what she is not saying today. The speeches, once so well-received, have put the lie to her action/inaction--and her failure to act has negated the credibility of the speeches in the eyes of many.

Silence and speaking have marked the public career of Daw Suu, as she is known. After a military takeover in her country, she was imprisoned under house arrest for 15 years, effectively silencing her voice of protest. We've covered here her 1990 Freedom from Fear speech as part of Famous Speech Friday, given before her arrest, and in that speech--a great psychological study of oppressors--she said:
It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.
As I noted in that post, these words were not held back for the stirring end of the speech, but were thrown down early in the speech, a direct and bold challenge. There is nothing reserved about this speech, which had credibility because it not only spoke truth to power in defiance, but because it went beneath the surface and analyzed the real motivations of her country's oppressors in a way that speeches rarely do. It is worth reading again.

Freed in 2012, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and her acceptance lecture at the awards ceremony also has become a touchstone speech about human rights. Here's a passage that is coming back to haunt her today:
Are we not still guilty, if to a less violent degree, of recklessness, of improvidence with regard to our future and our humanity? War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.
And yet here we are in 2017 with the speaker appearing to do just the thing she decried: Ignoring suffering. New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof has an excellent analysis; Kristof has covered issues about human rights, women and girls, and international violence for decades and really captures the dilemma and the gap between Daw Suu's words and her failure to act in this important case. Like many observers calling her out now, it's the speeches he comes back to, again and again.

Kristof does have some direct clues, despite her silence, and shared the criticism from human rights leaders:
Based on a conversation with Daw Suu once about the Rohingya, I think she genuinely believes that they are outsiders and troublemakers. But in addition, the moral giant has become a pragmatic politician — and she knows that any sympathy for the Rohingya would be disastrous politically for her party in a country deeply hostile to its Muslim minority....Another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote a pained letter to his friend: “My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
The Reverend Tutu nailed it with that comment, something that all women who strive to have their voices heard should heed: If the price of your power is your silence, the price is surely too steep.

Just yesterday, Daw Suu finally addressed the issue in a speech that appeared to nod to both sides, not a satisfying answer to her questioners. She avoided the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York this week, and this speech came nearly a month after her last public statement, an unusual period of self-determined silence. But worst of all, reports said, "[h]er speech was remarkably similar in language to that of the generals who had locked her up for the better part of two decades."

What can an ordinary speaker learn from this extraordinary circumstance?

First, I think it highlights something we choose to forget or ignore many times when we give a speech. A speech is a statement of belief. We assert things in speeches, and defend or decry them. We share opinions. We put our marker down: This is what I think, believe, hope, expect. We ask others to share our views, vote our way, act in our behalf or that of our cause. Not in every speech, but in many of them. We push ideas, and ask you to accept them, even applaud them.

But sometimes, perhaps, speakers forget or choose to ignore the speeches they've given. Not so the outside observers, who can use your speeches as a measure of what you said then versus what you are saying now. This happens, of course, more with public figures like Daw Suu, or U.S. presidents, or members of Congress or parliaments, and it should. Speeches are a public statement, and yes, they can serve as a measure of your credibility--a truth no matter how famous or ordinary you may be.

I've learned from working around the world that in many countries, the idea of formal speechwriting and even rhetoric--just a system for organizing thoughts into language--are considered dirty words, thanks to their misuse by politicians and despots intent on saying one thing and doing another. The misuse of speeches in this way undercuts entirely the credibility of speechmaking. In some countries around the world, one does not identify oneself as a speechwriter, or talk about having prepared a speech, or having someone else prepare a speech for you--all for fear of looking like you are just manufacturing propaganda. And that's a shame, although a realistic reaction to the misuse of speeches.

In a democracy, however, we still look to speeches as an important part of the process--and scrutinize them as well, using words to hold the leaders the account. The widespread criticism of Daw Suu is a part of that process, the outside world holding her to account for her words. It's a great reminder to speakers that your words can indeed come back to haunt you and your credibility, so choose with care.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Amber Tamblyn: "The more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir"

Film and television actor Amber Tamblyn has been on our screens since she was 12 years old, and this week, the now-34-year-old actor took the time to write in the New York Times about the issue of women who've been harassed and how difficult the backlash they face makes it to speak up. I'm Done with Not Being Believed is an important read about one of the most common ways women are silenced, both in the workplace and their private lives, when they try to speak up about sexual harassment.

This isn't a speech, though it certainly could be one. But it's importance lies not just in raising the issue, but in offering other women a picture of how other women like them suffer, and how this woman is going to change her behavior to stop tolerating the backlash and silencing. So I recommend you share it widely, after you read it for yourself.

Because she made bold to complain about harassment on the set and was not believed, Tamblyn writes, "I have been afraid of speaking out or asking things of men in positions of power for years." Calling the demands that women who've been harassed show some proof "the credentials game," she says she and other women are done with that. 

The stirring conclusion of the article should give encouragement to any woman who cares about speaking up, and speaking in public: "We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir. And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change."

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Red Carpet Report)

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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

I read a lot about women and public speaking, and post my finds first on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook. But I always collect them here for you on Mondays as well. Here's what I've been reading lately:
  • Wait a minute: This video takes a look at the prevalence of women being talked over. It's at the link, and below. On our Facebook page, this was far and away the most popular post last week.


It's time to stop talking over women. 
Get involved in more conversations on public speaking with The Eloquent Woman. Follow our Facebook page, read great quotes from eloquent woman on Pinterest, or follow me as @dontgetcaught on Twitter. Learn how to be a better panel moderator with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Susan Bro:"They tried to kill my child to shut her up"

On August 13, Susan Bro lost her child in an unimaginable fashion, after her daughter Heather Heyer was struck by a car as she participated in a counter-protest rally against white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heyer's death was the coda for a weekend of anger and outrage that spilled over to the rest of the nation.

Eulogies are notoriously difficult for speakers, especially if they involve the death of a loved one. It is remarkable that Bro was up to the challenge just days after her daughter's shocking death, in the middle of a very public debate over violence and blame in Charlottesville. Her seven-minute speech for Heyer's memorial service was both a tender remembrance and a stunning call to action.

It also was a tribute to how outspoken Heyer herself was about her beliefs, and a sharp rebuke to those who tried to silence her. One of the most memorable lines from Bro's speech, which led to a standing ovation, was this: "They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her."

There's a lot to unpack and to admire in this simple speech. What can you learn from Bro's eulogy for Heyer?
  • Think about what a personal story can do within a eulogy. It's not surprising to include personal details in a speech like this, but Bro also used her remembrance to create a theme for the eulogy. She talked about the dinner table debates launched by her daughter, and how they were sometimes so uncomfortable that they drove Heyer's father out to the car to seek peace in a video game. This story does a remarkable job of tying the personal aspects of Heyer's life to the larger political issues that dominated Charlottesville on the weekend that she was killed.
  • Bring eloquence to a eulogy with plain speaking. Throughout the speech, Bro urges her listeners to continue Heyer's work for justice, telling the audience that "you need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability." Eulogies for famous people--as Heyer unfortunately became--often ask for action from their audiences, but the language here is particularly blunt and therefore striking. Some of my favorite admonitions from Bro include, "You poke that finger at yourself, like Heather would have done, and you make it happen." and of course the final line of the speech, "I'd rather have my child, but by golly if I got to give her up, we're going to make it count."
  • Encourage women speakers--before they become women. It's both heartbreaking and inspiring to hear Bro share how much listening she did in the short time she had with her daughter, and how often she encouraged her to speak, by engaging in those dinner table discussions, hanging in there when the topics got tough or voices were raised. It sounds like such a simple thing to do, but the mere act of listening to girls when they speak, and allowing them to express their opinions, can create a woman who isn't afraid to raise her voice--and who can never be silenced.
The full video of Bro’s eulogy is here and below:

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.)

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Want to boost conference attendance? Add women speakers

There's a little-observed phenomenon going on in conferences today: Many "mainstream" conferences in all industries feature few women speakers, and women speakers experience serious hurdles to get on their programs. But at the same time,  "women's conferences" pack their houses, make huge profits, see big attendance, get lots of sponsors, and generally thrive.

I know this because I watch when anyone mentions the paucity of women speakers at conferences on Twitter. The only exceptions are the women's conferences. And while I see the joy of the participants, I also see that these conferences are big business.

I get why women might well choose self-segregation--much as people of color did over a century ago when they were shut out of white conferences--in tweets like this one, suggesting that gender balance should be ignored:
Despite that patriarchal view, and the well-worn trope that we don't want "just anyone" presenting, adding women speakers greatly impacts a good way for the bottom line. Take this tweet as just one example:
Why might that be? As women know, when you scan a conference program and see few or no women speakers, you understand immediately that you'll be an anomaly, standing out in a bad way. You'll be the "other." And, as we've reported on the blog, a paucity of women speakers and attendees often leads the men-in-majority to make misogynistic decisions about conference entertainment, or even the presence of prostitutes. You'll find a recent example in Above the Law's post, Conference lacks women speakers, but makes up for it with showgirls. For more, read The prostitute factor: Why we're not serious about women at conferences, which focuses on some top conferences, like the World Economic Forum and a Microsoft conference. It's one of the most-read posts on thus blog.

Think about the reverse. Conferences where women feel not only safe, but included, and celebrated, are an easy "yes" for both participants and speakers. That might be a women's conference, but it need not be. Any conference can be one where women can see themselves participating at all levels...if it wishes. Build a smart code of conduct, offer fees and travel reimbursement to your speakers, and make it easier for women speakers to say "yes" when you call. After all, women do *not* just want to speak and participate in conferences for women.

I think "mainstream" conferences should get smart and take your cue from conferences like the Massachusetts Conference for Women, which can brag about a sold-out attendance of more than 10,000. If those 10,000 women attend all of the sessions at a total of $285, that's more than $2.8 million from just the registrations. That doesn't include fees for the 250 exhibitors, and dozens of sponsors. So advertisers and sponsors want to reach women, a demographic they can target specifically at these conferences. Hmm.

Just a reminder to conference organizers: The attendees missing from your meeting, and the profits missing from your wallet, may belong to the same group that's missing from your program. Above the Law blog put it this way: "[I]f you are an attendee, stop attending conferences that continue to perpetuate exclusion. Spend your $750 on a conference that’s doing more to embrace diversity and inclusion than simply putting pictures of women or POC on its website or on its PowerPoint presentation. Undoubtedly, your own client base will become more diverse with time, so why would you want to attend a conference that’s an echo chamber?"

Indeed. That's just what I did when a longtime conference I attended ignored my harrassment complaints, then required attendees to tick a box saying they would not sue the organization. My $750 plus spent on that meeting goes to much more satisfying uses these days.

McKinsey calculated that Canada alone could boost its gross domestic product by $150 billion by 2026 if gender equity were promoted across the board. I can't think of a better place to start than with women speakers at conferences that aren't targeted to women alone.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by UN Women)

Get involved in more conversations on public speaking with The Eloquent Woman. Follow our Facebook page, read great quotes from eloquent woman on Pinterest, or follow me as @dontgetcaught on Twitter. Learn how to be a better panel moderator with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels.