When Women Get Talking: Gendered Responses to Presentations and Panels
For the last few weeks, I have not been blogging because I have been busy with several Events, including the Tucson Festival of Books in Tucson, AZ and the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, FL. These were both fantastic events. ICFA was my first academic conference ever and I even presented a paper!
However, the panel I want to tell you about happened at the Festival of Books.
Quick poll: How often have you gone to a book event with panels and every single person on the panel and moderating were women?
Most of the time when you go to see a panel (or are on one), you notice that some people are talking more than others, some are most charismatic or interesting, or some are just much better at answering the questions being thrown their way by moderators and the audience. Have you ever noticed who is doing most of the talking, however? Well, I've been paying more and more attention to what kind of people get asked what kind of questions and also what kinds of people generally take a back seat in public settings. As you have probably already guessed, women and men differ in these areas quite a bit. Here are my preliminary findings:
Presentations by Them: Given with authority and utter surety, no matter the subject; Can wonder from the subject or fail to have a clear argument while retaining listener attention anyway; Not usually questioned or interrupted
Questions to Them: Phrased in terms of asking for more information (i.e. "What would you say about X, given Y?", or "What does X mean in Y?", etc.); Almost always posed at the end of a presentation or answer
Presentations by Them: Often given in a meandering style; Presenter often seems nervous and glances at men in the room/on their panel often; Usually asserts an argumentative stance; Frequently interrupted by questions, clarifications, and opinions from the audience
Questions to Them: Phrased in terms of checking their authority or knowledge (i.e. "Have you thought of X and how does that random fact affect your argument?", "Have you read X? And this is why I think it would strengthen/refute your argument.", etc.)
(In my single observation of a transwoman receiving questions, they were phrased in the same style as they are towards cis-women)
The most interesting thing about my study so far is that while some women manage to give very firm and almost "masculine" presentations which do not get interrupted, ALL female presenters are eventually posed fact-checking questions by audience members BOTH male and female. For example, at one panel at ICFA where both presenters were female (but the moderator male), two similarly phrased questions were posed by audience members.
The first was by a man, where he began his question with: "Are you familiar with...?" and went on to explain the relevance of his suggested text. This was infuriating enough and in line with my earlier observations, but then a woman asked the following question: "I wonder if you had considered addressing in a longer version of this..." and went on to explain what she thought the female presenter (and resident expert on the topic) should do. Most often, the people asking questions phrased in this way are not the most experienced and well-informed people in the room, but rather peers of the people speaking. The common denominator is only that the person being questioned identifies as female. You do not see these same kind of questions posed to men, nor do you see them being interrupted by the audience or their fellow panelists.
All of this is to explain why a panel I attended at the Tucson Festival of Books on "Uncanncy London" was so exquisite. The moderator was a woman and ALL THREE panelists were women writing in the genre of adult fantasy/science fiction. They included Marie Brennen, V.E. Schwab, and Samantha Shannon, all enormously successful authors. This is what happened when they were all put on a panel together:
First, there was some uncomfortable feminine solicitude. I was already seated when the authors were walked in and there was a bit of confusion among them about who should sit where. Shannon, as the youngest and most British, checked several times to make sure where Schwab and Brennen wanted to sit. Brennen sat almost immediately and took a moment to realize that there was something amiss. Schwab assured Shannon and Brennen not to get up--that the order was fine--and they all took their seats.
I was close enough to overhear conversations at their table while the moderator got settled and the rest of the audience trickled in, looking for seats in a packed auditorium-style classroom. Shannon and Schwab, seated next to one another, began talking politely about Britain and London (they both have family on the Isle). By the time the moderator called for the panel to begin, the two authors seemed quite excited from their discussion of favorite cities, etc.
The next thing that happened was very interesting. These female authors started REALLY TALKING. Some background information to put this in context: Earlier in the day, I had attended a panel where Beth Cato spoke on a panel with two male authors, one with an especially outgoing personality. She was stuck on the end of the tiny table, hardly said a word, was often interrupted, and barely talked about writing at all. Instead, what I remember about her talk were things which her male panelists said about her: that she had brought homemade Snicker-doodle cookies to share and that she was a busy mother. Though just as much an author as her fellow panelists, somehow poor Beth was shunted to the edges of the conversation and pigeonholed into the role of a stay-at-home mom and domestic baker.
You could almost sense the expectation Brennen, Schwab, and Shannon had of this same thing happening to them. When asked a question by the moderator, they all three waited, as if expecting a man to start talking about himself. It took a few questions for them to get used to the fact that they were welcome to talk as much as they wanted, when they wanted, without being interrupted. And wow, did they have some great things to say.
Left to Right: Marie Brennen, V.E. Schwab, Samantha Shannon, and the moderator at the University of Arizona venue for the Tucson Festival of Books, March 2017.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this was the best and most inspirational author panel I have ever attended. As the talk grew, these authors grew with it, unfolding out of the shells of feminine solicitude they had entered with and revealing themselves to be intelligent, creative, individual, and hard-working. Questions posed to them by the moderator focused on their choice of a London setting for their novels, their shared obsession with music playlists for their writing, and how they handle everything from knowing where a sprawling series will end to managing their presence on social media.
These women thrived in this setting, feeding off of one another and discussing the depths of their professional work and creative processes. It was fascinating and invigorating to see how much women really have to say when they are not constantly being interrupted, questioned, and put into a box labeled "female." Nothing about this panel's discussion had anything to do with their gender, specifically BECAUSE they were all allowed to be professional people in the same way men are in every setting.
At the conclusion of the panel, the moderator opened the floor for questions. One was posed by a young woman who explained that she was writing a novel while in college (as all three of the panelists had done) and asked for some advice on how to focus. Brennen, Schwab, and Shannon gave professional encouragement and pointed out to the girl that 3,000 words per writing session was fantastic and that was not running into "walls" at all. None of the questions posed by the moderator or the audience followed the usual authority- or fact-checking model I have earlier elucidated. Why was that?
Perhaps it was because these women were able to escape their shells and show us their professional expertise without interruption.
This panel proved something which is often disputed, but shouldn't be: that representation matters. Allowing women to be equally represented, or over-represented, in a field or group can lead to them being seen as real people, instead of the "token woman." Brennen, Schwab, and Shannon were able to relax among one another and be themselves: smart, creative, and encouraging without fear of being questioned or blustered over by their fellows. It should not be so rare that there are panels of all women, and in fact I would personally prefer it until such time that men and women are seen as equals, rather than on a heirarchy.