• Leily Farman-Farmaian, Vanessa de Waall

Women's Voices and How to Listen

“Women don't need to find a voice: they have a voice. They need to feel empowered to use it and people need to be encouraged to listen.”

While Meghan Markle was speaking to her own experience of being an entrepreneur- and her daily life has since changed, it remains an important principle to women inside of work cultures globally.

Here are a few of my own observations and research on this important conversation:

Interacting with an Anti-failure Culture

In my experience as a university student, I have seen my friends’ discomfort with participating and being vocal in class or in more formal environments. All of them are intelligent, multifaceted and capable women yet, for the most part, they feel intimidated by the idea of sharing their thoughts.

I started thinking, what could be holding them back? And what are the consequences of a culture where the perspectives and voices of women are not heard, regardless of whether or not they are not listened to?

From an early age, our society has created the standard that making mistakes is just not good. While perfection is praised, failure is antonymous with learning and growth, and the more we disassociate ourselves from it- the more successful we’ll be. Yet the truth is quite the opposite: those who make mistakes create opportunities for growth. In the context of the education system, children are brought through a routine of tests and grading system that infers the less mistakes they make, the better they are, and the more successful they’ll be in the future. The idea of expressing an opinion in class in fear of being wrong may be far too intimidating and outweigh the satisfaction of receiving praise or growth, so a woman may choose not to speak. This mentality may follow through beyond the classroom.

The problem with this ideal is that in reality, failure is feedback needed for improvement, and an opportunity to learn. Failure challenges you to reevaluate, to continuously adapt, to better yourself, and to choose the path that is right for you.

Mansplaining can be Real

Whether it’s explaining a concept to a woman that she already understands, pre-judging how much she knows, or a woman’s idea being rejected but subsequently accepted when a man voices the same idea: mansplaining still exists. While this subject may involve both cultural and biological factors, awareness of such phenomenon can motivate towards change. Deep voices have been listened to over softer ones as it is a signal of testosterone, which is an honest signal of strength the defend a tribe. Acknowledging these in-board biases can do wonders for changing the psychology of a team.

Generalization is the process of socializing boys and girls differently. There are often times where women become ostracized for being too dominant in a group setting. I have witnessed, in my own experiences, strong women in these scenarios being written-off as loud, out-there, or different. And it’s wrong. Fear of this is not cool, but it can come from these real world experiences. If you see it- name it.

I don’t believe there’s an overnight solution, but rather a series of steps, outlined below, that can be taken in order to work towards a situation where women’s voices are encouraged and where all women have the confidence and ability to share.

Encourage Expression

The first would be creating an environment that doesn’t focus on failure as it is conventionally taught. Instead, it would focus on the message that each person brings value and that whatever your contribution, it will prove beneficial to the audience for having listened and heard. It's a focus on learning (like a startup), and feedback. If we don't experiment and try new things we either won't hit the mark or take much longer to learn and uncover the innovation that is most meaningful- so we've got to encourage trying and risk-taking.

If you do have the privilege of facilitating a conversation, or even are a member of a group and you notice someone is not participating- Ask. The simple words "What do you think, Sarah?" have the power to change an entire team dynamic and so if you have that opportunity, please take it. Together, these problems are solvable.

This is especially true in, but not limited to; male-dominated environments, where women often believe that sounding smart and adding value are requirements for validating their presence in the company, without room for error. Oftentimes, women are their own biggest critics, meaning they over harshly filter their thoughts. As a result, speaking less frequently and choosing to stay silent rather than share any opinion that they would otherwise share in a more personal setting. As such, comments and thoughts that could have added value aren’t being spoken in the first place partly out of fear that they are not either of high enough quality and/or would not be well received. Let's eliminate these fears by encouraging each-other.

Illuminate Sub-conscious Bias

While content is key, delivery is also an issue. Women want to exude confidence and intelligence by being strong and vocal. However, while these traits are respected in men, women are often labeled as (insert negative gendered term) for exhibiting the same behaviour as their male counterparts - what is seen as assertive in men is aggressive in women.

In situations where women do vocalize, another potential issue is being interrupted or having their thoughts go unacknowledged until someone else reiterates them and receives the credit. In these scenarios, it can put the person whose idea was essentially “stolen” in the position of needing to say “like I said” or another statement to solidify that the idea originally stemmed from them, which can often be uncomfortable.

Being aware these biases exist, and educating the people around you are them is a great step to contributing to a better culture, where all voices are valued.

Transforming Awareness to Action

Again, a combination of awareness and confidence need to be implemented. Women need to believe that their thoughts add value and should be shared. In conjunction, the environments in which they function needs to be adjusted in a way that the people in them recognize their actions. For example, if a woman is sharing her thoughts and is interrupted, the expectation should be someone speaking out to say “Grace was talking, let her finish.” Leadership is making a point to include all voices, encouraging everyone to share their thoughts by focusing on the individuals.

Transforming the environment encourages confidence. If women are heartened to share their thoughts and they recognize the positivity of an environment that facilitates it, it will motivate them to continue to share and build on that behaviour. If women continue to speak up and support those who do, this further builds security and confidence that can encourage more women to participate.

Have “Insane Confidence”

On the other side is the focus at the individual level. There needs to be a reinforcement of confidence and education around the immense value that each person brings. In Mindy Kaling’s commencement address to Dartmouth College, she encouraged the women in the audience to “have insane confidence in [themselves]” and to be their own “cheerleader[s].”

For women, showing leadership has a trickle-effect. If she believes in herself, so can I.

Kaling's comment speaks to the fact that changing the work environment can only do so much, women need to have the confidence to take action. Unfortunately, there are times when letting your work speak for you is not enough, women need to be their own advocates. And as Meghan puts it- "their own best friend[s]".

Solutions play hand in hand, a supportive and encouraging environment instills confidence, while awareness and action discourage negative behaviour. Recognizing that each woman’s contributions enrich the conversation inspires women to see their own value. Cultivating that initial confidence through positive self-talk to share ideas encourages more women to participate.

While these changes may not happen overnight, the established awareness of what we can all do can jumpstart change in our culture.

As Oprah says "when we know better, we do better"- and it can begin with you.

Because, "Who are you not to be?" (everything you want!)