Empowered Girls: Speaking Up

Did you know women and girls are less likely to “speak up” than their male counterparts in society.

Let that sink in a bit.

I know men often accuse us women of talking too much, but the reality is we aren’t speaking up and being heard and we aren’t in leadership positions at the rates one might expect in the year 2015.

When it comes to speaking up in a leadership position or something requiring a woman to take initiative relative to her male counterparts, women are much less likely to do so.

In the article Silent Women: Why Women Don’t Speak Up, they refer to new research (as of 2012) that argues women speak 75% less than men in a group setting. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a troubling statistic.

As a woman, I know it’s true. I feel it in every cell of my body. I grew up with it. I work with it. I live with it. I’m infuriated by it. But why does it exist?

If women talk so much behind the scenes, why are we so reluctant to speak up at work, school, or other places?

The Economist writes about What’s Holding Women Back? and finds that there are double standards in the workplace. While most Americans concede that women are just as capable as men, women are still held up to higher standards than men. In other words, women are expected to prove themselves in ways not required of men, which was detailed  by Pew in their research about Women and Leadership.

According to the Pew research, 43% believe women are held to a higher standard, 43% are not ready to hire a woman leader, and 23% believe women don’t have enough time because of their families.

I feel like I need a solution now more than ever. Not only am I a woman, but now I have a daughter. I want her to be able to withstand the social pressures imposed on women, but more importantly, I want her to live in a world where there isn’t social pressure that limits women. I want my daughter to have the same opportunities as her brothers. I want so much more for my daughter. 

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My daughter, and on her wall pics of the females in our family. 

In my search for answers I tried to reflect on my own experiences. I started off childhood as a relatively shy person. In my teenage years I wasn’t extremely shy, but I wasn’t entirely outgoing. I wasn’t an extrovert in college or in the workplace either. I was reserved, content with knowing things in my head and not speaking up in class or at work meetings. I never was encouraged to speak up. I thought doing a good job was enough.

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Shy 1st grade me, accepting an award.

I’ve always worried about my stomach being too big. I’ve never thought I was articulate enough. Pretty enough. Aggressive enough. I’m looking at my college pic below and cringing, wondering if I should have shared it.

My brother, on the other hand, has always been full of confidence. So is my husband. Father. Neighbors. Male colleagues. I never see them analyzing their bodies. They don’t censor what they say. They take risks and be themselves. Me, and a lot of other women, analyze our every move. The over-analyzing paralyzes us and undermines our confidence.

I’ve only become comfortable speaking up in the last few years, now that I’m in my thirties and a mother of three. I still recognize traces of that shy person who sometimes holds back.  I still dislike talking on the phone. But I realized that speaking up is like a muscle you need to exercise. Once you warm up, you will have so much to say. Your words are important. Your ideas are valuable. I couldn’t believe that I spent so many years keeping those thoughts and ideas locked inside of my own brain.

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Shy college me at the Honors Convocation, ready to claim my cords.

I had to wonder if that’s why women seem more prone to writing. I feel like women write and keep journals and enjoy the hobby more than men. Is it because we’ve been relegated all of these years to the written word instead of verbally speaking up?

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Slightly less shy 30-something me

Why did it take me so long to be able to speak up? It’s hard to articulate the social pressure you feel that’s invisible in a classroom or at work, but everyone knows it’s there.

I think the Pew Research nailed it. Women have to prove themselves more than males in society, and because us females intuitively know this from a young age, it makes it riskier to speak up. We’re scared.

We don’t want to sound stupid.

We don’t want to be unattractive.

We’re not inclined to interrupt anyone. But men have no problem doing exactly that.

We’re not confrontational.

We don’t want to be wrong.

Men think assertive women are bitchy and bossy.

Nobody thinks bitchy and bossy is attractive.

We are filled with self-doubts.

And by nature, we’re not risk-takers.

One of the reasons we are expected to “work harder” than men is because of our child-bearing responsibilities. There we go. The ‘ol child-bearing card. Since we’re the ones responsible for pregnancy and in a lot of households the primary caregiver/nurturer, we’re not valued as much as men outside of the home. To many in society having children means women will have less time and too much responsibility at home to be worth anything professionally. According to the aforementioned articles, men actually experience an increase in promotions when they have children versus single and childless men. The opposite is true for women.

It starts in our childhood, years before our eggs are even ready for motherhood. We unofficially get this label, like a blinking scarlet letter across our bosom, without any discussion or our consent. Society brands us with it.

Ironically as I started to write this, I took a break to read my daughter a book before bedtime. I try to buy her empowering books with strong female leads. We pulled out Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and on the first page this is what we found:

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“…young Rosie sat shyly, not daring to speak.” 

It’s even in our children’s literature. We deal with this as soon as we start walking and talking.

Let’s be honest. Not only are women expected to do more to prove themselves at work, but our overall experience compared to men is more difficult.

Caitlin Moran was spot on when she wrote about what men need to know about women. Basically it boils down to two things:

1) women have to be fearful of men in society (because of violence like assault, rape, etc), and

2) women are exhausted balancing everything that society and nature expect from us. We are expected to look attractive. If we don’t, we’ll be judged. If we do, men will stare and/or call out to us. We have to balance motherhood and working. I know for me, finding the time to shave, cook, clean, work, exercise, dress nice, spend time with the kids, and do everything else that I do leaves me feeling exhausted every single day. I also feel constantly judged. Judged for my looks. Judged for my age. Judged for my mothering. Judged at work. It’s like we live in mini snow globes and have somebody shaking us up and staring 24/7. When women age they are old hags. When men age they are considered fine wines. What’s that about?

Read Caitlin’s article. It resonates.

So, what to do? Here’s some of my brainstorming:

Stop accepting it. I know so many women who are complicit in the discrimination. They allow men to compartmentalize them into a neat little box that only gets opened when the man says so. They don’t aim for anything more in life. They are complacent. Timid. Submissive. Dependent. Trusting.

We have to push comfortable boundaries if we want change. We have to hold society accountable for its double-standards. We have to say no.

Advocate for women. Sheryl Sandberg talks about the lack of women in leadership positions in her TED talk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” and also in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She argues that we need to push society to include women. We can’t be be silent about it. We have to push society to accept women in leadership positions.

Since women are usually the primary caregivers, we need to press society to demand inclusiveness for working mothers. We’re not talking free passes. We’re talking flexible hours, better childcare options, decent maternity leaves, etc. We see CEOs like Marissa Mayer with Yahoo, pregnant with twins, announcing that she’ll only take a two week maternity leave and will work throughout that time. No doubt for the benefit of shareholders. Come on. As women we can’t fight Mother Nature. We were built with the parts to incubate and birth babies. We can’t change that. Society needs us to reproduce to continue the human population. As such, it’s not too much to ask that the workplace accommodate us when we need to express breastmilk for our babies in daycare, or to have flexible hours to drop off children at school or anything else we may need to do from time to time and we shouldn’t get penalized for it. We can still work just as hard (if not more) than men, but some of us also want to be good mothers too. We don’t have to be put in a situation where we have to choose. If a man can “have it all,” why can’t we?

We need elected officials to make better policies that are truly family friendly, starting with mothers. We need more private businesses to take the lead in setting an example of what a family-friendly workplace looks like. We need working mothers to be able to still be diligent mothers with the ability to raise great kids who are our future.

Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid to say the wrong things. Don’t be afraid of risk. I think one of the reasons men are used to risk-taking and better skilled at it is because they approach many women in their lives and get rejected. They grow the thick skin you need to withstand rejection and disappointment simply through experience. Women need opportunities to grow that thick skin too. We need to band together and teach young girls early on that failure, trial and error, and making mistakes are all part of the process. We get back up and dust ourselves off and try again.

Education. Education is the great equalizer. It empowers us. It makes us independent and smart and driven. Nobody can control you when you have a mind of your own. I have the same job as my husband. I see other women who stay home and while I know mothering is hard, you lose power in the relationship if you don’t bring the bacon to the table. Power of the purse isn’t just for Congress. I don’t have to ask for money. I make my money. My kids view us as equals. It’s not just daddy with a profession. Mommy has one too. It’s not a man thing in my house. I love that my kids respect my intelligence and achievements, and for my daughter especially I think it is vital.

Women role models need to step up. Young girls need to see examples of possibility. They need to witness women in leadership positions and see women speaking up so it’s not considered unusual but instead the norm. Little girls need empowered moms. They need to talk to strong female neighbors and relatives and friends and teachers.

It’s a lot to think about, I know. But we have to start somewhere.

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