Yes, I’m bold and direct and outspoken and have plenty of opinions.
But they’re usually in defense of an abstract idea, or a principle or a policy. Rarely, if at all, in defense of myself and my behaviors and choices.
How can this be?
I grew up in a weird way — sent to boarding school at the age of eight, where I was often in trouble and shunned and punished for it — with only 2.5 years living at home with my mother. Then ages 14 to 19 with my father and his girlfriend (later wife) who was 13 years my senior, too old to be a loving sister and too young to be a nurturing mother.
It was tough.
So I learned to get on with it, to not show or share my true feelings, and — when I did — to be very careful. If I dared to disagree with these people, I could be met with rage or estrangement, sometimes both.
I was never abused physically, but verbal abuse can really leave deep scars. I still remember an argument with my father I had at the age of 20, another from six years ago, in which I was utterly excoriated.
This week, in a rare and very scary moment for me, I wrote a long email to an editor — obviously someone I hoped to work with — challenging his knee-jerk suspiciousness of me as a “new” freelancer.
New to him.
I know, thanks to lots of therapy, that when I start to shake, (let alone cry), something is hitting me really hard and in a very deep place that has never healed — the automatic assumption I’m shitty, stupid, incompetent, wrong. That my opinion, however valid or well-argued, is going to just be ignored in favor of theirs.
Standing up for others’ needs and concerns? I do it all the time, happily and ferociously. It’s one of the reasons I still love being a journalist. I thrive on finding and telling stories that show social justice and offer some sort of hope to readers.
It’s a real privilege and one I value.
When it comes to the people I love — look out! If they’re dissed or dismissed, I’m a momma bear.
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.
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”.
This essay in The New York Times, written by a woman raised with traditional Confucian values, really hit home for me:
Much of one’s worth is equated to compensation and promotions in the workplace. And for years, bringing up these topics and taking credit for my own work were still uncomfortable and even embarrassing.
But I realized I had to stretch myself to succeed in an environment that was so different from my cultural upbringing. Confidence was expected. And I knew it wouldn’t just spring up from a pat-yourself-on-the-back brand of puffery, but from a deeper understanding of worth and how it could be communicated in the workplace.
As I examined my background and core values, I discovered that having a perpetually apologetic stance didn’t necessarily represent true humility. I found that I could offer an honest self-portrait without being arrogant, so others would see how I could make a difference…
Throughout my career, I’ve met many other professionals who have struggled to find their worth on the job. Women and members of minority groups, especially, are often raised with one set of values and expectations, and then suddenly need to excel in a new environment where the path to success is much different.
One challenge immigrants face when moving to the United States is the sheer number of people you’ll be competing with for good jobs. Maybe not if you move from India or China, but Canada — where I lived to the age of 30 — has only 10 percent of the population of the U.S.
When I moved to the States, after having established a thriving journalism career in Canada, I felt like a raindrop falling into the ocean.
Would I ever be able to re-make my reputation? Was it even possible? How?
More importantly, though, is the brass-knuckled self-confidence you’ve got to have, (or fake successfully and project consistently), here — certainly in New York — to meet the the right people, say the right things, answer with the requisite ballsiness.
Anyone modest or self-deprecating is quickly and easily trampled by the brazen, who will become your boss.
When you grow up in a smaller place, people know you, and your family. They know the value of your university degree — not mistaking it, as happens here all the time (sigh) that my alma mater U of T (University of Toronto, the Harvard of Canada) is not the University of Texas (hook ’em, horns!)
They also get why you’re not chest-beating and telling everyone how amaaaaaaaaaazing you are — because, in some cultures, modesty is highly prized. Boasters are declasse.
Here, I had to be taught, seriously, how to interview effectively for jobs:
Lean forward in your chair! Smile! Keep their gaze! Have a 30-second elevator speech!
In Australia, they deride such overt confidence as “tall poppy syndrome” — as in, the tallest poppy will get its head lopped off. Better to be a low-lying blade of grass.
I recently had a conversation about this, with a total stranger, a woman of French origin who’s lived here for more than 40 years. Like me, she’s a sole proprietor of her business, a cafe and catering business. Like me, she still struggles with the internal messaging that boasting is ugly.
When our bolder — and more successful — competitors do it all day, every day.
How about you?
Do you feel comfortable tooting — or blaring — your own horn?