Self-Advocacy: A Women's Catch-22

I teach the Women in Leadership class at the University of New Hampshire, and I believe that women are stronger when we listen to each other’s point of view. The following blog post is written by Maddie Osbon, Women in Leadership student, University of New Hampshire.

Advocating for oneself should not be taboo. However, for women especially, it is an uncomfortable act, one that we tend to stay clear of doing. No one wants to come off as overly confident, or self-absorbed, for fear of being judged. So instead we do the opposite – women don’t advocate for themselves, and their voices are lost. Gender roles play a part in the lack of self-advocacy in women compared to men. Men are expected to be assertive, dominant and bold, while women are expected to be self-less, caring, and submissive. It is uncomfortable for anyone to go against gender stereotypes, which is why women tend to stay away from positions that require self-advocacy in the workplace. However, when women do get the courage to speak up and advocate for their value, they are often seen as narcissistic and are disliked by colleagues. Their assertiveness ends up hurting them, thus giving women a catch-22 when deciding to advocate for themselves. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Growing up in my family, there were plenty of opportunities where I learned to advocate for myself, but I can think of three experiences that influence my self-advocacy:

1. I am the youngest of three daughters. There is a three-year age difference between my two older sisters, while there is a ten and six-year age difference between my sisters and me. With that span of an age difference, I tended to be taken advantage of in fun. Their most infamous thing to do with me was to “play waitress.” Hint: I was the waitress. When I was younger, I loved playing, and I thought they were including me in their activities. Once I grew older I realized they were essentially using me as their maid. I realized I no longer wanted to be taken advantage of, and I stopped playing their game. This is only one example of times I have had to advocate for myself with my sisters.

2. As I became older, more opportunities to advocate for myself presented themselves in sports and school. My parents are strong believers in enabling me to handle my own problems or concerns first—prior to getting them involved. I had some great teachers and coaches throughout my school years, and some not so great ones. There were times when I was frustrated with a situation, and my parents asked me “well, have you talked to your teacher/coach about it?” They made me be my own voice for myself. If I didn’t like the playing time I was getting, I approached the coach to find out why and to ask what I could do differently. If I didn’t like the position I was playing, it was my job to discuss this with my coach and voice my opinion/ask questions—respectfully but still voice it. If I felt I should have earned a different grade, or was doing the majority of the work in a group project, I was responsible for talking to my teacher and/or other group members and advocating for myself. My parents were not the type to do my work for me, and this not only taught me how to self-advocate, but it made me into the independent person that I am today.

3. My mom is another example for me on how to self-advocate. My mom did not attend college, and at a young age she became a secretary in her office. Throughout her career, she exhibited hard work, and dedication. She went to work during the day, took on additional projects outside of her job’s scope while also going to school part-time at night. My mom advocated for herself any chance she had. My mom was able to work her way into positions that required more responsibility and accountability, taking on each position and showing her leadership and peers what she was cable of doing, and why she was deserving of new opportunities for advancement and responsibility. Today, over 30 years later, she works as a successful manager in human resources in a large male-dominated company. She is who I look up to and learn from in regards to advocating for myself. She knows the importance of knowing what you are worth and what you can bring to the table and she advocates for her skills every day.

I am still learning to advocate for myself as I go through my college career. As a woman interested in working in the sports industry, self-confidence and the ability to self-advocate are essential skills I will need in my “toolkit” in order to be successful in that type of male-dominated environment – any environment really. Recognizing your own value and self worth and being able to vocalize it can be uncomfortable, however it is vital. As women, if we want to be recognized as being equal with our male counterparts, it is critical.

I suggest that an easy way to start making women more comfortable with this concept would be for women to advocate for other women. Not only would this help women be more confident, it would give us the practice opportunities we need to eventually make advocating for ourselves and others a normalcy in our lives.

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