Assert…or defer

By Caitlin Kelly

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I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything
You held me down, but I got up (hey!)
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, your hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake your ground
You held me down, but I got up
Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough
I see it all, I see it now
— “Roar”, Katy Perry
If 2017 taught women anything, it was this…
It’s time to assert ourselves and stop deferring to the toxic bullying and sexual harassment of sooooooo many men.
But it’s also an ongoing personal/individual challenge and one that never gets easier, no matter how loudly we roar — I still remember Helen Reddy’s second-wave feminism anthem, “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”…
That was in 1971.

The sad truth is, when women roar — even whimper — we’re too often dismissed, laughed at, overlooked, ignored.

By women and men alike, people who cling to power and are scared to lose it.
We’re told to “pipe down”.
That we’re “over-reacting.”
It’s also deeply cultural, how at ease we feel (or not) asserting ourselves and our needs — whether the honeyed silk-sheathed steel of “Bless your heart” from a Southern American woman to the “Fuck you!” of a ballsy New Yorker. (Neither one of which might win us what we want, by the way.)
I was struck by a friend’s experience boarding a plane to claim the seat for which she’d paid extra — to be confronted by some guy traveling with his large family who preferred (!) to take her seat so they could all sit together.
Excuse me?
My friend chose to defer, and it was interesting to see how differently her friends reacted. Some of us would have told the guy “Not a chance. Move!” and others would have “kept the peace” by allowing him to usurp her spot.
Because when women don’t defer, it can get ugly, even violent.
So we often opt to defer, not because we want to or because we agree with you or because we think it smart or powerful — but because we’re scared of what will happen if we don’t.
It’s a perpetual and not-fun seesaw of being polite (or a doormat?), or being assertive (or perceived as a bitch?) and one that is never going to be perceived the same way by the next person we encounter. That alone makes for exhausting calculations.
I grew up in a family where my deference — like yours, possibly — was expected, taken for granted. I remember little to no negotiation, so I learned that many of my needs were less than.
That’s a deeply female experience.
And yet I was taught, outside the family, to boldly assert myself intellectually and athletically — like a man, really.
Being Canadian by birth and upbringing confuses this further for me, as it’s a culture more attuned to the collective good than the individual-focused U.S., and certainly elbows-out New York City.
How about you?

How do you balance being assertive and deferential?

Why don’t women speak up?

By Caitlin Kelly

photo
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. Legendary for her ferocious biographies, she was so much fun!

Fascinating, depressing, unsurprising read in The New York Times this week:

Women’s voices are often missing and discounted in public affairs, even when they have seats at the tables of power. They speak less, make fewer motions and are more often subject to negative interruptions. Similar patterns prevail online.

If they feel at a disadvantage speaking as women, it’s because they are. In settings as varied as school boards, Vermont town meetings, community meetings in rural Indian villages and online news sites worldwide, researchers have quantified how women’s voices are underrepresented.

Women take up just a quarter to a third of discussion time where policy is discussed and decisions made, except when they are in the majority.

As someone — clearly! — unafraid to speak up publicly, whether in a blog post, letter to the editor, (with my letters published in the Times and in Newsweek), essays or op-eds — I’m not someone scared of being heard.

But so many women are!

I was raised this way, and many girls aren’t: I attended a single-sex school ages 8 to 13 and single-sex camps ages 8 to 16, where women led and their competence simply assumed as normal and expected.

I was raised by my father after I turned 14, and he never discouraged me from speaking out, (even if he should have!)

If you’ve ever attended a town meeting or a conference or a public panel discussion, especially when there is a microphone one must speak into, where you’re being recorded on video and audio, it’s an intimidating moment to speak out loud in front of strangers.

They might laugh. They might jeer. They might boo.

Or — they might listen attentively.

I see a similar pattern, and one that disturbs me, everywhere. If you read Twitter, and comments during Twitterchats; if you read letters to the editor in print; if you read on-line comments, you, too, will have noticed the paucity of women’s voices and opinions.

Only one woman’s name stands out as being an extremely vocal letter-writer to the Times, a professor at Brown named Felicia Nimue Ackerman. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen her published comments many, many times.

In one of the many writing classes I’ve taught, I urged my students to start writing letters to the editor, to add more female voices to the overwhelmingly male cacophony. I was thrilled to see one of their letters recently in The Economist.

A random survey this week showed three letters to the October 31 issue of the New Yorker (all women); 11 letters to the Financial Times (no women!); nine letters to the FT (one woman) and eight letters to the FT (no women’s name I recognized; couldn’t tell the gender of three of them.)

Our voices need to be heard!

We vote. We pay taxes. We employ millions of workers. We serve our country in the police force, fire houses and the military.

Why don’t more women speak up?

Frustration at being ignored, talked over or consistently interrupted by men. Responding can make us look bitchy, when it’s they who are being rude.

— Lack of practice: the less often you speak out, the more scary it seems.

— Lack of time. Too busy working/commuting/caring for others’ needs.

— Lack of interest in the subject at hand.

— Lack of self-confidence. “Who’d want to hear my voice anyway?”

— Fear of being trolled, getting rape or death threats. That has happened to women online, certainly.

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of saying the “wrong thing”, whatever that is.

— Fear of losing professional status, especially in a male-dominated industry or field. 

From Guts, a Canadian feminist magazine, written by a woman who fought against workplace bullying:

The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.

Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.

Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.

 

Do you speak up?

When, where and why?

Are you over — or under-confident?

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you seen the Dove ad everyone is talking about?

David Brooks, a conservative columnist in the liberal New York Times, asks four related questions in today’s column:

My perception in college was that more men were seminar baboons — dominating the discussions whether they had done the reading or not. But now, when I visit college classes, the women seem just as assertive as the men.

But I’m not sure that this classroom assertiveness carries out into the world of work, or today’s family and friendship roles. And I’m not sure we’ve achieved parity when it comes to elemental confidence. When you read diaries of women born a century or centuries ago, you sometimes see
them harboring doubts about their own essential importance, assumptions that they are to play a secondary role on earth, and feelings that their identity is dependent on someone else. How much does that mind-set linger?

….how do you combine the self-critical ability to recognize your limitations with the majestic confidence required to struggle against them? I guess I’m asking how to marry self-criticism and self-assertion, a blend our society is inarticulate about. I guess I’m wondering, as we make this blend, whether most of us need more of the stereotypically female trait of self-doubt or the stereotypically male trait of self-promotion.

I’ve blogged about this issue many times — here, here and here, on why men seem happier to blog more than women.

Brooks is not a stupid man, but, dude seriously?

Women harbor doubts about their own essential importance, single or not, child-free or not, because so much of our value is placed on other people’s firm and fixed beliefs that we are still at our best when:

– safely neutered/married

— mothers

— silent

— earning less

— far from corporate power (like C-suites and boards of directors)

— absent from political seats of power

— polite, quiet, obedient, quick to defer to male authority

Women’s putative (or real) lack of self-confidence also fuels billion-dollar industries: fashion, cosmetics, plastic surgery, diet foods and methods, many of which focus on our external appearance, not the intelligence, drive, ambition and people skills we also need consistently and in abundance to succeed, certainly in any competitive professional setting.

It's not that hard to say no
It’s not that hard to say no (Photo credit: cheerfulmonk)

I recently saw a perfect example of this difference. I met a man, a bit younger than I, when we were both honored with the task of judging a journalism award. Within minutes of meeting me, he felt the urge to tell me he had earned more than $100,000 in his last magazine job and now had two $8,000 writing assignments at the same time.

Really? I needed to know this?

More like he really felt the need to fan his gleaming little peacock tail before me.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 ...
The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 공공 보도 부문 상인 금메달 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband has a Pulitzer prize, a fact I am too happy to tell people, while he (bless him) never mentions it. I have a National Magazine award and two well-reviewed non-fiction books, and hundreds of published articles, to my name. Whatev!

And yet…..and yet…In the United States, modesty is a career-threatening approach. Blowhards like Mr. $$$$$$ above seem to be the ones winning the brass rings.

If I choose to keep my mouth shut about my many accomplishments, it’s a choice of being modest — not a lack of self-confidence!

And women who peacock are often treated as pariahs, by men who find them threatening and women who often loathe them for proudly speaking out when they’re too damn scared to do the same.

I’ve lived this issue since my teens, when I sold a photo of mine to my high school and began writing for national publications at 19, neither of which could have happened without a shitload of self-confidence.

How about you?

How do you balance these two things in your own life?

Just Say No

Conflicting Emotions
Image via Wikipedia

It’s two letters, one syllable.

Why is it so hard to say?

Because we have conflicting needs and desires.

I recently turned down three offers to speak to audiences about my new book.

One would have had 3,000 people on-line; another 30 people in a room a 45-minute drive from my home and the third maybe 60 people in another country. None of these people thought it odd, or rude, to ask that I speak without any compensation or any guarantee of book sales. Just “exposure.”

Of course I want to sell lots and lots of my books. I want and need to meet new readers. But with gas at $4 a gallon and my time billable at $150-200 hour, being asked to just give it away really annoys me.

Why exactly am I expected to donate my time, energy and skills?

So now I don’t.

It feels really good to finally start saying no. (It doesn’t have to be rude or have any affect at all. It is, as they say, a complete sentence.)

We’re all trained in the art of nay — or yay — saying. I grew up in a family of people who were/are extremely determined to get their way. People who consider me stubborn and hard-headed, who’ve also met my family of origin, get it.

There was little negotiation, often their way or the highway. So “no” became a fairly useless response, if I wanted to have a family at all.

The first man I married won my heart through his unblinking ability, on Christmas Eve after a toxic little maternal encounter, to say “No” to the whole thing. We left. I would never had mustered up the nerve to tell her enough! Thank heaven he did.

Women are heavily socialized from childhood to make nice, keep everyone happy, givegivegivegivegive (in), no matter our true, private feelings on the matter. The woman who dares to be the first to buck that trend, to ask for a raise, refuse to make team snacks or host Thanksgiving is often vilified for being so….demanding!

One of my favorite books is “Women Don’t Ask”, which explores this issue in detail.

It can take years, decades, even a lifetime to locate your spine and keep it as stiff as rebar when needed. Saying no, despite the conflict, anger, frustration and recrimination it can create, (and, oh, it does!) is a powerful choice if all you’ve been saying — reluctantly, resentfully — is yes. (Sigh.)

So much easier to avoid conflict by caving, keeping everyone else happy, wondering when you might finally muster up the nerve to say NO and mean it.

What have you begun saying no to?

How does that feel?