Speak Up!

On Female Participation

For a few years, I have been astonished by the feminist expectation to speak up. For once, people wanted me to take more space, to make my voice heard. It was supposed to be empowering, liberating, making your skin glow with confidence et cetera. But I used to be a speaker, and it did not go well. As a teenager, I remember participating a lot in class. I asked questions, I asked for examples, when I knew an answer, I gave it... I also remember the glares and the whispers. “Know-it-all” they said, and they were right. I was a bit of a know-it-all, and I still am. But the classmate on my right was also a know-it-all, and no one ever thought about it. Why was that? Oh, right, that’s because he was a boy! I should have known this from the start. Being a boy gives you more rights in the classroom, whether you’re a goody two shoes or a wild child. And when a girl gets just as noisy, social control kicks back in. She becomes silent again, as she is expected.

In the professional sphere, it becomes a real problem. Have you ever heard of the dude/not a dude time count? It’s a tracker you can have during meetings to see who is talking more. You can measure it in terms of time, but also in terms of interactions. Not surprisingly, even in meetings numerically dominated by women, results of the experiment often show more participation from our good old Steve.

When I came to Sciences Po, I became more and more confident about participating and giving my opinion. That was because I was surrounded by a lot of incredible young women who dared to speak. We represented 60% of the school, and an even bigger proportion of the campus. But I guess that being a white, middle-class woman helped a lot with my case. I don’t think I was coerced to the same extent as my classmates from different backgrounds. Here, my participation is encouraged, but was it the same for all my sisters? Even in a highly stimulating environment, a lot of them are still impacted by imposter syndrome or intimidation.







The best example I have of intimidation and imposter syndrome in Sciences Po were the eloquence contests. Our school has two main eloquence contests, the Prix Richard Descoings (bilingual) and the Prix Philippe Seguin (in French only). You typically have 48 hours to work on a given topic and deliver the most brilliant speech possible. It is really hard, I suck at it, but it is also a lot of fun! When you take a look at the prestigious semi-finals and finals in Paris, not a lot of women happen to be qualified, despite numerous candidates. I have two main reasons for this: unconscious bias by the jury, or a lesser level of competence. I refuse to consider the second option because I have seen some qualification phases, and a lot of speeches. I have seen excellent prose written by both men and women, and terrible ones written mostly by men... but still judged with more patience than their female counterparts.

I believe we are as good and eloquent as men, sometimes even more. And yes, I also believe I have seen more terrible speeches (and interactions in various contexts) pronounced by men than by women. The very essence of that difference is that women are taught with shame, that acts as a protector and a filter. We usually do not say something risky if we believe it could be misinterpreted, or mediocre. Men are naturally more confident in the public sphere. This daring nature leads them to speak more freely and less reflectively. Therefore, they can sometimes say terrible things without thinking twice about them, but also have this lightning wit that sweeps you off your seats. In this volubility hides excellence, and this excellence is taken away from us by our education. We are actually excellent in the same way, yet we leave the guilt of taking too much space behind. My friend, Manon De Cabarrus, 2nd place at the Prix Philippe Seguin in 2018 is one of the wittiest, nicest, and funniest people I know. She embodies excellence in everything she does and inspires me to do the same. She works hard and is equally daring. Her red suit at the Emile Boutmy Amphitheatre is a sight that will be remembered.

I am still a speaker today, and if you know me you can tell because I am still participating in class, volunteering to be the class delegate and delivering presentations with glee. But I am not ashamed of it anymore, and this has expanded to other areas of my life. I take more space as a person: I have my own podcast, and I sometimes write for Quelle femme. You can say I speak up, maybe not very eloquently, or in situations where it requires courage, but I do try again and again. Of course, it is because I like it, and I do not ask you to do things you don’t want to do for the empowerment effect, but it is also because I switched my perspective. I believe I stopped being ashamed because I started asking myself the question “If I were a man, would I think twice about this?”. You should try it too. Maybe one day, if it has not already, excellence will come to you (and when it happens, please give me some).

Hereby, I solemnly ask for the right to be as mediocre as it is socially acceptable for a man to be.

Mathilde Larive