raising my voice, dropping my voice

July 6, 2007 at 4:35 pm (gender, ultimo sa)

i was at the frontline management course today. it was very interesting. after class yesterday sylvia and i had mentioned to the teacher that we didn’t appreciate the sexism that was coming out. today, we had to sit boy – girl – boy – girl around a u-shape. this was justified by a story about army dinners with her army husband, with the men getting up and moving down two places like a barn dance, to keep the ladies entertained.

then she got someone to keep time for ten minutes, in which none of the men were to speak. they couldn’t do it, with people starting to speak and being hushed, whistles, noise, and someone making a sign, with lots of antics to try to make people read it. the women meanwhile, got the fairly basic work done with a minimum of fuss, and i enjoyed the quiet immensely. the noise level in the room had been loud and constant.

then we had to switch. the noise level went back up, though not quite as high as before, and they discussed everything at rambling length, with plenty of not-quite on topic comments, and heaps and heaps of commentary on what the women were doing. if we looked at eachother we were communicating. hand gestures was not allowed, and got heckled. sylvia came in for lots of hassling, when she couldn’t reply. the work talked about anti discrimination and stereotypes, and i was not happy to be unable to contribute. there were lots of dubious comments and laughter, and one particular comment from a certain person sitting directly opposite me, about male florists and female mechanics, and how if there was an all-female auto mechanic business, it wouldn’t go well because noone would trust them. or something. i sat bolt upright and glared at him.

the third ten minutes, only the five most noisy people were allowed to speak. this included sylvia and the main offenders from the previous set. it continued largely as before, but sylvia could argue. she was unsupported however, so she couldn’t fight everything.

the fourth round those five had to stay silent. it was a farce; the sign holder had decided he had something that was worth saying, and we tried to shush him many times, but he refused to follow the rules. the rules we had all been following, which meant i had spent twenty minutes already forced to listen to his blather with no recourse. the other barred boys got in on the shushing, which was even worse. in the end, i raised my voice to approximate the total noise level we’d been having in the room, and commenced speaking, trying to shut him down by taking up all the verbal space. i had to go on and on, talking about how i would have to keep this up until someone else who was allowed to speak joined in, as that appeared to be the only way to keep others from assuming all the space. it worked a little, shutting him down, but everyone else decided that they had comments to make about this display. eventually the woman who was moderating that bit came to the party and opened her mouth, and asked me to read a passage. i dropped my voice down as low as i could considering i was shaking with adrenaline, and read. and then people listened!

many years ago, when i attended even more meetings than i do now, i was in one that was as noisy as usual. when katrina, the vice chair, dropped her voice to speak rather than raising it to compete, everyone stopped talking, leaned in and listened. i was amazed! i have always kept that in mind, and tried it a couple of times, but this was the first time it had worked.

at lunch time, i wanted to tell mr female-mechanics-are-ok-in-a-male-business that i don’t like his constant sexism. he actually approached me first, and it ended up as the two of us with the teacher for quite a while. he said he was using examples of prejudice to make a point; he didn’t mean anything against female mechanics. i told him that i appreciated that, but it wasn’t just the comment, it was the constant sexualised environment he was creating. i also talked about how examples have subtexts, and are read differently by different people, and his were fuelling the general environment in a way that i and other women were uncomfortable, and being prevented from talking as much as others. i didn’t say that if i were a female mechanic i would be delighted to work in an all-female company, and i think it would go very well indeed because there wouldn’t be a man for customers to view as better, and anyway there should be enough people who have trouble with male mechanics for us not to need the chauvenists. much was said, and i was very impressed by how he took it on and affirmed a commitment to do better on these issues, instead of belligerently repeating how it was all humourous, as i have been subjected to by so many people i’ve tried to explain things to. he was very quiet through lunch and all afternoon; i hope it was just lots of thinking. it would be very good if he becomes better on this, he acts like he is in charge wherever he is, and often enough it’s true. what’s more, i think he knows more about how to make things work at tafe than anyone else, and i hope to learn more from him.

interestingly, the one example of defensiveness in that exchange actually came from the teacher. i was explaining that i was a little uncomfortable with the heterocentricity of the environment, with a touch too many examples and questions about husbands and wives and children, and not enough talk about tafe student associations. and too much talk about restaurants, thanks to one person – but we all knew that! she acted a touch offended, saying, many times, that she didn’t realise her examples were a problem, they were just from her life. she took it like an attack on her, not a comment on the whole classroom and something to be aware of. after lunch she apologised beforehand for every comment she made that was personal. maybe she took half the point, but at least half was missed.

eventually we joined the others for lunch. i was much happy birthdayed, and my lunch was payed for. several people also came up to me and asked if i was ok, if i was very upset. it was because i had raised my voice. it was unexpected, from me, and lots of people thought it meant i was very upset. i had been a little upset, but that wasn’t the point! they hadn’t listened to the content, just the volume. is this always the case? the sign writer seems to have been leaned on to apologise, as he did, gracelessly; demanding to know if he had upset me, then cutting me off with his ‘well sorry if i did’. twice.

the afternoon was more subdued, between silence in one corner and apologies from the front (for herself and her examples, while she was talking about assertive behaviour no less) but possibly productive.

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