Use your voice to get heard – and help someone else too
"Be a lady they said. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t talk too much. Don’t be intimidating. Why are you so miserable? Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be so bossy. Don’t be assertive. Don’t be so emotional. Don’t cry. Don’t yell. Don’t swear.”
This is an excerpt from the Girls Girls Girls* video that went viral recently. A rather disturbing video in which Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) narrates the words of a young blogger, Camille Rainville. It's about all the conflicting ways society puts pressure on women.
Use your voice...but don’t talk too much
When I cofounded a women’s business network 15 years ago, we were the first in our area to offer a supportive environment for women to learn the key skills to do well in business. A safe collaborative place where they could use their voice and be listened to equally.
I’d had plenty of experience by that point of women’s voices not getting heard as they should. And not much seems to have changed.
One of Caitlin Moran's recent articles mentions a study about conversations in mixed-gender groups. When women only talk 25 per cent of the time or less, the conversations are seen as equally balanced. When they speak 25–50 per cent of the time, women are seen as dominating the conversation.
It is not surprising that we stay quiet. Some women, especially of the boomer generation, were brought up to not talk too much and keep their thoughts to themselves.
But there are lots of other reasons.
Your personality affects how you use your voice
As a quiet teenager attending a traditional German grammar school my school reports always(!) included the footnote “She is too quiet and needs to speak up more”. Everyone insisted that it was just a question of raising my hand more. What could be so hard about it?
For one, there was the cliquey competitive atmosphere in the classroom, and I realised early on that I didn’t quite fit in.
You may not believe it if you have met me. Because I can talk a lot, I am very open and love meeting people. The truth is that I have learned to be extrovert, sociable and outgoing when I need to.
Your cultural background also affects how you use your voice
I coached a Chinese leader once who had a PHD and had been head-hunted because of her outstanding expertise. Her peers were all male and had warned her that if she didn’t contribute more in meetings, she would be at risk of losing her job.
Her quietness had been interpreted as incompetence. Nobody had realised the reason for her holding back. Her cultural background and understanding of hierarchies and responsibilities prevented her from speaking up!
Sadly, she couldn’t adapt to this environment because for her it would have meant losing face. So eventually she decided to leave because staying would have meant denying an important part of her identity.
There are a multitude of reasons why women don’t speak up, especially in mixed environments.
It is impossible to know how to present yourself to the world!
Use your voice... but don’t be assertive!
When you’re not used to using your voice, it can be scary to raise your head above the parapet. Some people overcompensate by talking too much or by talking too loudly. Yes, I’ve done that too. And then I get really embarrassed because what I said came out completely wrong.
Another situation I have seen play out is that of a woman speaking up because she has a great suggestion. Later in the conversation a man claims this idea as his own. I have noticed that sometimes both men AND women in the group let this go unnoticed.
Is this just helplessness or resignation on the part of women? Why don't we speak up for others? A simple “Yes when Sarah first mentioned this ..” might be enough. “Or since her suggestion is clearly popular, we should all explore this further”.
But that might be too assertive?
I've also seen this happen: A woman expressing something confidently only for another to say under bated breath, “She is always so full of herself, isn’t she!”
I find this puzzling. In meetings where women feel intimidated by assertive women, we see this as bragging. When the same thing said by a man could come across as confident.
On LeanIn.org, an organisation I found via the International Women's day website, a whole course is devoted to this and other biases.
To me it seems that some women are assertive because they have been told to defend themself. To toughen up.
It is impossible to know how to present yourself to the world!
A good way to use your voice and get heard
I didn’t come out of my shell at school until one of my English teachers realised how much I enjoyed the English language and took me under her wing. If it hadn’t been for her I would have continued to hide (my voice) ‘under a bushel’ at university, and later in the workplace.
A turning point for me was writing my English thesis about the role of women in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. It dawned on me then that it was so much easier to speak up when you feel passionate about your topic.
This learning has stood me in good stead in the 28 years I have run my own businesses. When I'm excited to share something I feel strongly about - whether in a blog post or talking to other people - I get a real buzz.
I know that the more passionate I used to be about helping people in both big and little companies the easier it was to sell my training and coaching services. I work online now, but the principle still applies.
Passion sells, not a loud voice.
The key here is that when you feel that buzz, you are authentic. You are being yourself and your words and actions come from the heart.
Look for encouragement and support
I heard a young woman talk recently about having to ask for investment for her start-up. Her key learning was to be braver in future and to ask for more money. It had taken her years to find out that she could! And that men don’t seem to have any problems doing so.
It would have helped her a lot to talk to women who’d been where she was. Women who had shared their learning.
3 things I’ve tried to pass on in my collaborative Inner Circle groups that I have run for 13 years:
- Knowledge is power
- Mutual support and encouragement are vital
- Inspiration takes you to great places
If you feel alone in your quest, why not look to join a supportive women’s network. A network where you can find role models to talk to. Or a mentor. There is no need to be alone and wondering how to get your voice heard.
What can we do now?
I see lots of evidence where we have more opportunities now than we had 20 years ago. But in many areas doors are only opening very slowly to women.
I heard yesterday that for each job application a father writes, mothers have to write three. (This was on the German news but I’m sure the situation in the UK is not much different.)
Women still get treated differently and there is a lot amiss in our society. And so it’s even more important than ever that we help each other up where we can.
We simply can't wait for the culture to change. When you use your voice to speak up, you're paving the way for others.
If we want to help ourselves, we need to help others too. So when you sit round a table and you hear a woman sounding bossy, please give her the benefit of the doubt, before jumping to conclusions. First impressions can be deceiving.
Or when someone has lots of things to say but is struggling to get heard, maybe she just needs a helping hand! Another woman saying, “I value Sarah’s opinion and would like to hear more about what she has to say about this”, could make all the difference.
But please let’s stop the idea right here, right now, that society needs to fix women. That there is something wrong with us. And that to fit in and get our voice heard we need to be like everyone else.
Mutual support and encouragement could be the crucial missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to bringing about a cultural change.
Are you with me?
About Ute: I have a mindful approach to helping heart-led women over 50 to appreciate the value they bring to the world. It is an important part of building a meaningful small enterprise. I enjoy writing and look forward to publishing the book my colleague Jean and are writing for female bloggers. It’s is about making a greater impact by finding your unique voice and a truly authentic message that stands out.
My favourite quote is “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Sometimes we simply get in our own way, whether through taking on too much, suffering from Imposter Syndrome or a confusing relationship with money. I believe that the answers we need are always within us, but sometimes it helps to have a little nudge.
Image credits: Pixabay, Sophia King and my own