Last week we celebrated a 100 years of the Representation of the People Act in the UK, an Act that, through electoral reform, began to give voice to women (and all men) through the ballot box. Recent months have also given witness to a depressingly sordid account of women’s experiences in the workplace: be it in the film industry, parliament or as women trying to earn a living in an economy where low pay is endemic, zero hour contracts rife and being told to dress in short skirts and high heels to satisfy the needs of powerful men is the best you can get.
Having voice is a central tenant of any democracy; the means by which a country’s citizens get to have their say on matters that affect them. (Of course, the most effective way to give voice is much debated and something I will leave to others more qualified than I to speak on.) I was fascinated to learn in last week’s celebrations of the existence of Suffragists, the women who, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, believed they would achieve this end using peaceful means – if they were seen as intelligent, polite and law abiding then women would prove themselves responsible enough to participate fully in politics. We now know that Emmeline Pankhurst became impatient with this ‘respectable’, gradualist approach and so the Suffragette movement was born under the motto ‘deeds not words’ and a more militant approach was adopted.
Reflecting last week – on voice, on words and deeds – also caused me to reflect on my own words and deeds and on how I use my ‘voice’ to best effect, particularly in the workplace. How do I, as a woman, express myself? How do I assert my authority and influence the decision making process, whilst remaining inclusive, ‘warm’, open and good-natured? As a woman I am only too aware of the classic dilemma we often face; too assertive and I’m classified as bossy and aggressive, too timid and I’m not taken seriously, my ‘voice’ is easily dismissed. Something I was much less aware of, but which a good friend and colleague recently pointed out to me was how, in meetings, I often finish what I’ve been saying with the question “does that make sense?” In my head I am using that question to connect with my audience, to check-in on understanding. However, what my friend pointed out (and it’s something psychologists have researched) is that, as a woman, in asking this question, I am communicating that I, the speaker, am not sure myself in what I’ve just said. I think what I have said might have been incoherent; so rather than check-in on understanding because I’ve communicated a novel or complex idea that needs time to ponder and digest, I give licence for my audience to think that what I’ve said actually doesn’t make sense! And I’ve discovered, that in women, these verbal ticks are hard-wired.
How often have you as a woman (or observed other women doing) stood up to make a presentation and apologise for taking the audience’s time? Reassure them that you’re nearly through your slide deck? How often have you started a sentence with a disclaimer, “of course, you’re all much more expert on this than I.” (In fact, rather ironically, I’ve even done that myself in this blog.) Research tells us, that men, as they are by default held in high status, are perceived as both warm and competent from the get-go. Women, as history and the present shows, don’t have that automatic ‘status’. So, for women in the workplace, and in society more generally, whilst these hard-wired speech patterns shouldn’t matter, they do.
As I started this working week with this new awareness, I made a commitment to myself to start re-wiring those verbal ticks. I want to find a way of communicating that doesn’t begin by apologising to my audience or finish by undermining myself. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop being myself; I will still seek other’s opinions and insights, I will still be collaborative and open, I will still seek out connection. But I will do this in a way that does not diminish my own competence, experience and point of view.
Does that make sense? 😉