Last month, during the Circular WUR conference in Wageningen we attended with AgRefine, I realized two important things. The first one is that after two years of digging into bioeconomy topics, I am not just a passive listener anymore. I am not only trying to absorb information like a sponge and learn as much as possible. I became more critical and aware of what I could agree or not agree on. It felt great to acknowledge it. The second realization is not as brilliant. Paradoxically, it also sabotages the first one.
I realized it during one of the plenary sessions, in a big room full of big people, all experts on the topics discussed. I had just finished listening to a presentation and I couldn’t agree less on most of the things that were just said. It was about one of those topics for which both the studying and my climate change anxiety led me to have a clear stance upon. I had all the arguments and counterarguments clear in my mind to support my position and the questions to ask the speaker. More importantly, I felt strongly that excitement you have when you touch on topics which you are particularly passionate about. Perfect moment to stand up for my ideas and reach a big audience!
Well, if the expectation was to be the Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of anaerobic digestion, the reality was that I just froze on my seat at the thought of speaking in front of 200 people. First, I spent 20 minutes writing the perfect question on my notebook to feel ready enough to stand up and speak in front of the microphone. Then, I realized that no matter how much I could prepare myself, my mind was getting foggier and foggier. And so came the second bitter realization: I (still) have public speaking anxiety. It didn’t feel great to acknowledge it, at all. But with such great self-acknowledgements come great responsibilities. So I started to reflect on the roots of a fear that has prevented me from feeling free and safe to express my ideas, and from taking the space I was more than entitled to take.
The most immediate reflection was on my character. I’ve always been an introvert and working on my shyness not to interfere too much over my life in a negative way. Never been a big fan of spotlights. In school’s plays I was always the kid happy being in the back rather than in the front of the stage. The most stressful moments of my privileged childhood were probably the ones in front of my birthday cake when everyone had to stare at me until the happy birthday song was over. Growing up, I learnt that being an introvert did not have to prevent me from doing things I really wanted to achieve, even if they required stepping out of my comfort zones. I diligently worked on myself to overcome fears linked to my shyness that could be an obstacle to my self-realization. Speaking in public to defend my ideas is one of the things I really want to gain more confidence with. I know that I am willing to work on it and as with everything else that is a bit challenging for me, I know that practice, time, and therapy, will help.
But the motivation not only comes out from the fact that I want to feel free to deliver messages that I think are important. The motivation has to come also from the reflection that, as a woman, the fear of occupying the public space with my body and my ideas comes from far. Historically, women have been socialized to be unassertive and quiet. “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” the Bible says (Corinthians 14:34-35). Homer labeled speech as “the business of men” and Sophocles wrote that “silence is a woman’s garment.” The roles that women ascribe to themselves were and still are ingrained within this frame. Today, studies still show that men dominate 75% of conversations in decision making groups. Academia is not an exception in showing this discriminatory heritage. Considering the context of conferences and seminars, from a survey responses over 600 academics in 20 countries, it was found that women reported fewer questions after seminars compared to men. By observational data from 250 seminars in 10 countries, women audience members asked absolutely and proportionally fewer questions than male audience members. The reasons they gave when asked were internal factors such as “not working up the nerve”. Also, women often consider themselves to be “not ready enough”. When turning down an offer to speak, women justified it with “I’m not ready,” citing a lack of experience or underdeveloped research. Underrepresentation of women in professional forums is therefore a huge problem. The lack of diversity gives narrow perspectives limiting the potential outcomes of discussions. If fewer women choose to speak, fewer are chosen, and the absence of women perpetuates the absence of women as role models. Is the bioeconomy field exempt from this? I wish so. I found myself confronted (again) to these considerations when attending the opening plenary session of the last European Biomass Conference and Exhibition (EUBCE). One woman out of 19 speakers. By looking at the full program, the gender imbalance was also very marked. Not surprising if we consider the European bioeconomy strategy, in which gender equality and inclusion are marginalized issues. This is then reflected in the way the discussion is being brought on.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asks our society a deep, “transformative change” to be able to continue surviving on this planet. This includes “changing underlying norms and values, reconfiguration of social networks and patterns of interaction, changes in power structures”. What kind of profound changes will we really achieve if the bioeconomic transition is not finally driven by a multitude of different voices? And I don’t just mean the inclusion of women’s voices, but also that of all the minorities whose voices and representation have always been obscured.
Coming back to my public speaking problem, it might help me to think that my struggle is not only a personal struggle and that any small achievement in overcoming my fear of speaking up, would not be a personal achievement only. As the feminist activist bell hooks wrote “the context of silence is varied and multi-dimensional” and can be found within family, community, or society. Silencing happens nearly everywhere, as “we live in a world in crises – a world governed by politics of domination”. Therefore, silence itself is not the lack of speaking; it is an act of submission. Overcoming this submission means not only to “emerge from silence into speech”, but to make speech heard”.
We will be heard.
Carter AJ, Croft A, Lukas D, Sandstrom GM (2019) Correction: Women’s visibility in academic seminars: Women ask fewer questions than men. PLOS ONE 14(2): e0212146. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212146
De Paola, M., Lombardo, R., Pupo, V., & Scoppa, V. (2021). Do women shy away from public speaking? A field experiment. Labour Economics, 70, 102001.
Aurelie Salvaire (2018) Balance the world!: Tactics to help you launch a gender revolution
Dunajeva, J. (2018). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Critical Romani Studies, 1(1), 128-131. https://doi.org/10.29098/crs.v1i1.18