The struggle to be heard

Finding a voice, as a woman researcher, can be hard.

One of my most frequent comments on women PhD students’ work is to ask them to try to ‘write like yourself’, to try to ‘find their own authorial voice’.  Sometimes it feels like, as we take our first few steps as writers, we feel we have to take on a grown up voice, another voice, a not-mine-voice. This problem seems to be compounded when we are working class women, or black women, or othered in some other way. As I read doctoral work, I can feel women reaching for big words, for unfamiliar phrases, for some mythic academic voice that is not their voice.   Why is it writing with authority that makes us feel like we have to ventriloquate someone else?

From the youngest age, young girls are told to be quiet, not to be too loud, not to be too boisterous – not to be too much of anything really. We learn that nice girls are to be seen and not heard. We learn not to draw attention to ourselves – that claiming the space to speak is somehow unfeminine. Research on men and women’s talk in groups highlights that men and women use turn-taking rules differently. Well, really, it highlights that women wait for their turn, while men seem to think it’s always their turn.  Perhaps being a woman in academia means constantly negotiating the tacit social ­­rules that function to always position women speaking out as wrong. As unfeminine. As uppity.

And of course, in entering academia, we are crossing over into a traditionally masculine world, claiming a space to speak with authority that has historically been held by white middle class men.

I have recently completed a project in which I acted as principal investigator, for a large scale, four nation European study. It is the largest qualitative study of children who experience domestic violence ever completed. The project has influenced policy and practice with children in 2 of the 4 participating countries. It has been huge. But my experience of ensuring that this work is noticed and celebrated has been one of endlessly hopping up and down like a five year old, shouting ‘look at me! Look at me!’ Drawing attention to our achievements as women academics can be uncomfortable. It can draw the wrong kind of attention, the attention that positions us as demanding, as arrogant, as problematic.

I’m not sure that I have yet found a way to use my voice comfortably. But I keep trying. I keep trying to make myself heard. I have so much to say. Most of it is, I’m pretty sure, very good. But it’s never easy to assert that.  The feeling of being an uppity woman, of not knowing my place is always present.

How do we find our own voice? Is it through capturing some essential, silenced but authentic feminine voice, Cixous’ L’ecriture feminine? Or is it more being tolerant of the way that we sound, the rhythms and tones of our own voices? I worry that my students feel that being an academic means using technical language, big words, sounding posh. I worry that in order to feel our work is sufficiently intellectual we need to squeeze out of ourselves a few thousand word caricature of Boris Johnson. We don’t have to sound like Oxford boys to be taken seriously. I think learning to write is about finding a space somewhere in between the extremes of ‘authentic feminine voice’ (I mean, come on! The pressure!) and ‘talking like a bloke’,  and instead finding a way to create our own academic dialect. We need to speak in our own voices. We need to speak with confidence. We need to claim that space in which we have a right to be heard.

Blog post by Jane Callaghan, Professor of Psychology.

Twitter: @JaneEMCallaghan

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