Finding a Powerful (and Skeptical) Voice—Speaking Out with Tara Moss

Kylie Sturgess

One of the great things about skepticism is that there are many resources and avenues people find that will draw them to be a more critical thinker about their world. Speaking out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls by Tara Moss is such a text: from the start it debunks stereotypes about differences between men and women’s language use, features a chapter on unconscious bias and its ramifications, and has a checklist on critical thinking that cites Dr. Steve Novella and All of this within a powerful guide to helping women navigate the sometimes difficult online and offline scenarios they face when it comes to being heard and being respected.

Tara Moss is an author, journalist, TV presenter, and an outspoken advocate for the rights of women and children. Since 1999, she has written eleven bestselling books, which have been published in nineteen countries and thirteen languages. Tara has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2007 and as of 2013, is UNICEF Australia’s National Ambassador for Child Survival. She has spoken at numerous schools on cyber bullying and online child safety, and in July 2015 was announced as the new Norton Family Ambassador on these issues. In 2015, she was also announced as Patron of the Full Stop Foundation for Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, and launched the foundation at Parliament House. In 2015, she received an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children and inspiring others to challenge the status quo.

Kylie Sturgess: Speaking out: A 21st -Century Handbook for Women and Girls—I loved the fact that your book dives into research and evidence at the very start, with the myth that women are more talkative based upon the presence of a protein found in rats, that even one of the researchers warned about extrapolating the results in order to link it to women and talkativeness. How much of your book has been inspired by the research that you did for your previous book, the memoir The Fictional Woman?

Tara Moss: Well, I’m interested in research in general on how often good data and research would debunk stereotypes and myths. And of course, the test that you were talking about that I relay in the book is the one done on rats and showed a certain level of protein in male rats and female rats. We decided this is the reason why women talk more. But in fact as far back as the 1990s, researchers have known that in sixty-one out of sixty-three studies looking at “talkativity” in different genders, in different settings, it was actually men who tended to talk more than women, particularly in public contexts or mixed gender contexts.

This is very important for the basis of the book Speaking Out because Speaking Out is about women and girls participating more in public life, so outside of the home. It focuses on those areas of influence in public spaces—home life is also very important, of course, but it’s not the focus of this particular book. And what we see is that even today, less than one out of every four people we hear from, or about, in the media is female. Of course, we know women have very low representation in parliament, in cabinets, and in areas of power, boardrooms, you name it. So, this book is about trying to counter some of that and it does start out by debunking some of the common myths and stereotypes around women—and in particular the one that keeps persisting that women apparently talk too much!

Sturgess: It’s a very Zeitgeist-y time for books on supporting women in the public sphere and to be in the public sphere; have you been encouraged by seeing this trend?

Moss: I’m not sure if I have seen a trend so much as there has been a kind of conversation happening about what’s been occurring? The statistics have improved a little; the study I mentioned earlier about less than one in four people being women that we hear from or about in the media, that was only 17 percent in 1995. So there has been improvement, but obviously not a massive one; it’s less than 10 percentage points over twenty years. So, there is certainly a lot more to be done and it could be done a bit faster. But I think some time just reminding ourselves that progress has been made can really show us that progress can happen, and of course shows us also we’re simply not there yet in terms of achieving parity in public voices and influence.

Sturgess: Writers like Caitlin Moran (How To Be A Woman) and Kameron Hurley (The Geek Feminist Revolution) have recent books out that encourage women to identify as feminists; yours is the first however I have ever seen with an Anti-Feminist Gas-Lighting Bingo card on the inside! Your book is labelled as a handbook; what inspired this particular format?

Moss: It is a handbook, so the Anti-Feminist Gas-Lighting Bingo is one of several bingo cards that I point out in the book—and these can be used if you are one of those women or girls who experience a lot of gas-lighting, or a lot of being dismissed, talked over, told you’re being crazy, told you’re hysterical, and people not actually listening what you have to say, or acknowledging your points or arguments. This happens even to women in parliament who are experts and who are women of influence. If it happens to them when the cameras are rolling, we know it certainly happens to women in regular day-to-day life, and sometimes these bingo cards are quite fun.

So if you are online, or you’re in a work scenario where you get the kind of response often that is not a constructive criticism, it’s simply dismissal—you can tick it off with your friends! The kinds of comments about “being hysterical,” being too emotional, needs a good lay; there’s various ones that are particularly anti-feminist and ones that advocates online get constantly, you might get them all in a single hour if you are online. And it’s a way of really pointing out the patterns of behavior when people are responding to women and girls and those particularly gendered patterns; the things that aren’t about the argument, they are not about constructive criticism, but they are about dismissals and are a very kind of gendered way to try to silence someone.

Those are types of things I think it’s good to compare notes on, because then when it happens to you, you see it coming from a mile away and you go, “Hang on, you aren’t addressing any of my points at all, you’re just putting out lazy insults saying I’m hysterical—let’s stick to the point. Let’s stick to the topic, and listen to what I have to say, and I’ll do the same.”

Sturgess: Why choose the format of a handbook? Obviously, The Fictional Woman was more autobiographical. What was it like in the process of creating this book?

Moss: Well, if you’d asked me a few years ago if I would ever write a handbook, I would have thought that was a crazy idea. I never thought I’d be in a position to be doing so. What I found is, after The Fictional Woman came out, I had hundreds and hundreds of women and girls who I spoke to on the road, at schools and universities, and in finding line-ups or even line-ups at the grocery store. They had stories to tell me, and they had disclosures for me in terms of things that they identified with in The Fictional Woman, sometimes some very tough things as well, but they also had questions. They had specific questions about how you deal with criticism, how you deal with trolls and online abuse, how you deal with being dismissed, how you find the confidence to speak up, and how you can speak up.

After about eighteen months of very similar questions from hundreds of different people, I realized that I needed to try to write a book where I could distill some of this information down and really try to encapsulate some very practical and specific, concrete things that people can do when they’re in this situation.

Sturgess: It seems like America is going to have its first woman as President. What’s your take on what’s happening in politics at the moment?

Moss: I certainly hope she’s the first President coming up because the alternative is not in my view very positive!

Sturgess: I’m wondering if I should send her a copy of this book quite frankly. I think she could probably use the bingo card.

Moss: I think she might enjoy it in terms of comparing notes, and she will have seen it all with the very public political career that she’s had over the last couple of decades! I would say that, again, we need to brace ourselves for a lot of very sexist and gendered reactions to her. The ones that are legitimate political criticisms or criticisms about policies, those are things that are always welcomed in the public sphere and should be a regular part of healthy democratic debate, but unfortunately we do see there’s a lot of name calling. There are a lot of very sexist responses, and we saw this of course as well with relation to Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister—and isn’t it kind of amazing just thinking about that for a moment that we’re still having these firsts now?

It took 109 years for Australia to get a female prime minister, and during much of that time people said, “Everything’s equal now. There’s no need for feminism. Women can do whatever they want.” It’s just that we never let them. They never get to that position where they are supported enough to actually be a leader, so the fact that we’re having these discussions now and we’re still having firsts, shows me that there’s a lot of change happening. That change isn’t always going to be easy. So we need to kind of buckle in for what I think will be a pretty long election period.

Sturgess: Now, you’re in the process of doing a PhD. How much of it has been tied into the book that we’ve got in front of us now, Speaking Out?

Moss: Well, the process of writing a PhD and being a postgrad student at the University of Sydney has certainly influenced some of my tips and tricks in the book on researching. In terms of the topic, I am researching gender and cultural studies, but it’s a different area within that topic. This book isn’t really directly tied to the thesis, and neither is The Fictional Woman, but I will certainly say that being in that academic environment has shown me again how important it is to look at your work critically, to practice good critical thinking, to practice good research techniques, and this is something you can do regardless of whether you’ll ever be involved in the academic sphere.

This is one thing that I’ve really tried to do with this book, to take some of those techniques outside of the academic sphere and really make them available to everyone. This is something a lot of good teachers also teach in high schools, but it really doesn’t get enough attention.

I think just reminding people that you can use those techniques, that you don’t have to feel kind of afraid or overwhelmed with something like critical thinking, just by talking about it, by challenging yourself in that way, it can make you do really excellent research and when you speak out, you can then be more prepared, more solid in your argument, and you’re less likely to have any kind of negative repercussions from your speaking out as well and that’s what I really want for everyone who speaks out but particularly women and girls. I want them to feel confident when they speak out, and I want it to be a positive experience for them ultimately, so this is part of what the book Speaking Out aims to do.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.