PITTSBURGH – 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 — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
For about half of the Woman 2 Woman members, English is a second or even third language.
For Paola Buitrago, a native of Colombia who moved to Pittsburgh in 2016, Toastmasters has helped her brush up on English for job interviews.
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.