By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Founded in 1924 by a YMCA executive who had organized speaking groups for men years earlier, "Toastmasters" didn't even admit women until the 1970s. In Pittsburgh, women can now join an all-female group."
At a recent gathering of Toastmasters International in Pittsburgh, some members called Sonia McKoy the "ah-counter."
As the designated "grammarian" for that evening's meeting, the consultant's job was to track how many times her fellow Toastmasters said "um," "so," or "like" or clicked their tongues when they got up to speak.
Being cognizant of those extraneous words, false starts and unnatural pauses is a critical component of Toastmasters, an organization that, for almost a century, has been helping members polish public speaking and communication skills.
But while McKoy's group adheres to the same standard agenda of rehearsed speeches, impromptu talks and evaluations, as do thousands of other Toastmasters worldwide, there's a difference.
This group, based at the Center for Women in Pittsburgh, is among the few all-female Toastmasters clubs in the world.
"We thought it would be empowering and fit into our goals of helping women be more independent," said Becky Abrams, director of the nonprofit that helps women in transition with job skills, financial literacy, mentorship, and referrals to other support services.
Launched in 2015, the Woman 2 Woman Toastmasters Club has close to 30 active members whose ages range from their 20s to 60s, and who travel to the weekly Monday night meeting from throughout the city and suburbs.
Global membership in Toastmasters totals more than 345,000 men and women in 142 countries.
While the California-based organization doesn't track its club membership by gender, spokesman Dennis Olson said the only all-women groups it could acknowledge with certainty are in Middle Eastern countries where they were created to adhere to cultural practices.
Founded in 1924 by a YMCA executive who had organized speaking groups for men years earlier, Toastmasters didn't even admit women until the 1970s.
Many clubs are formed through businesses or through community organizations.
Member Chana Gittle Deray got the idea for an all-female group while attending another Toastmasters meeting.
"Women mentor each other and have a special way of nurturing each other," said Deray, an inspirational speaker and blogger.
The all-female group provides a welcoming atmosphere for its members, said Abrams. "Some don't want to be nervous doing presentations at their jobs where there are mostly male colleagues, and some are women trying to get their confidence."
New members are assigned a mentor and, besides working on speaking skills, they learn how to organize and run the meeting, provide constructive feedback to others, and participate in impromptu conversations on topics that aren't announced in advance.
In addition to the grammarian, one member at each meeting reports on whether speakers meet or exceed assigned time limits.
"It's all about running on time and protocol," Abrams said.
There's also a word of the day announced at the start of each meeting, and members get extra credit when they use it.
So when the word was "highfalutin," Deray made sure to tell McKoy during a role-playing exercise on how to be a successful negotiator, "You were not highfalutin at all."
Members' dues for the Woman 2 Woman club are $45 for six months. There is also a new-member fee of $20 and an annual charge of $12 to cover costs for parties and award ceremonies.
If women need financial assistance, the group has a scholarship fund.
For about half of the Woman 2 Woman members, English is a second or even third language.
So Toastmasters provides them an opportunity to practice speaking to and with others, and to work on diction, said Leora Flax, mentor program manager at the center.
"It's a nurturing environment where they don't feel threatened," she said.
For Paola Buitrago, a native of Colombia who moved to Pittsburgh in 2016, Toastmasters has helped her brush up on English for job interviews.
"It's not my first language, so it makes public speaking a challenge," she said. "When you have to stand at a podium and prepare a five-minute speech, that's powerful."
Besides providing a structured environment to practice speaking, Buitrago said Toastmasters has given her a cadre of female supporters and "an environment for soul searching" as she tries to build a career and a life in a new city.
She credits the club with helping her land a job as a high performance data analyst at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.
"I'm just sorry I can't be here every Monday because sometimes work gets in the way," she said.
A few minutes before the meeting wrapped up on that Monday night, McKoy delivered her grammarian's report.
Gina Bernola, whose presentation was about gaining confidence as a cook despite early criticism from a former boyfriend, racked up five "so's" and three tongue clicks, McKoy said.
But Bernola, an attorney, wasn't penalized for any of those because she managed to describe a lasagna dinner she once prepared as "highfalutin."