The Impact of Speaking Out: When Silence Stopped Being Golden

Many women of my generation grew up learning to be quiet. We were told when we were young that children were meant to be seen, not heard. Then, with the start of the Vietnam War and the Women's Movement, we started to see the value of having a voice and having that voice heard.
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Many women of my generation grew up learning to be quiet. For real. We were told when we were young that children were meant to be seen, not heard. Then, as we approached college age, with the start of the Vietnam War and the Women's Movement, we started to see the value of both having a voice and having that voice heard. But, that proverbial but....

The messages became more complicated as we aged and entered the workplace, filling jobs previously dominated by men -- whether as doctors, lawyers or other professionals. Over the subsequent decades, even though more women entered leadership positions, we did so in fewer numbers and at lower wages than our male counterparts.

In this whole process, something happened to our voices.

As noted in the recent (and controversial) book Lean In, women have struggled to be recognized as leaders and have often been their own worst enemies in the march to the top. We have not stepped forward and asked for (demanded?) our just due. Somewhere along the way, we internalized the message that rocking the proverbial boat was not in our professional best interest.

Of course, the real story is more complicated than that. While it is important not to homogenize, some proportion of women leaders, myself included, have struggled to fit into a male-dominated workplace. Sometimes, that has meant that our voices are quieter or, when we speak, we are not actually heard. At other times, we may speak boldly, but we struggle internally with feelings of remorse and even guilt. Part of this is attributable to the fact that many women dislike confrontation; we like to be liked, and we are tempted to let things slide by unremarked because that is less painful, less disruptive and less threatening. Sometimes we even think our job demands smoothing over, not adding to, problems. And, we are painfully aware of what happens when we actually do speak out: we are often told to calm down and chill out and let it ride ("You are hyper-sensitive"); or, worse yet, we are informed that we have misread the situation even when there is every reason to be angry and we have not missed the situational clues.

Unfortunately, silence seems to breed more silence. Part of the reason that bullying, spousal abuse and racist or sexist comments continue is that few people call out the bad actors publicly. That does not mean women are oblivious to the wrongs that exist, but rather than confront them directly, we do amazing work-arounds and often swallow hard and wallow in private. Yes, the anger inside seethes but the pressure to be respectful, to treat all people well and to be quiet overtakes us.

For me, then, and perhaps for other women too, the problem has not exactly been one of learning to "lean in;" it is a matter of learning to speak out. And, I have taken that lesson to heart.

Recently, I had two "new" opportunities to speak out. One incident involved a professor from another campus addressing folks at a private meeting. He was dismissive, disrespectful and demeaning. In short, he was a bully. The other situation occurred during a telephone conversation I was having with government employee who, as I perceived it, made a racist comment.

In both instances, I had no reluctance to speak out. Perhaps it is that I am "gray enough" to speak, with all the incumbent risks. Perhaps it is because I just did a program on leadership in higher education and acknowledged that I owe it to the next generation to role model the enormous positive power a leader holds, power that can lead to social change. Perhaps it is that I see the irony of being a role model for young and emerging leaders when I have been concerned about confronting inappropriate, disrespectful and hurtful behavior head-on when it occurs. And, perhaps it is because it felt and feels positive to use my voice -- speaking truth to power as Anita Hill said and did. Her actions now reinforced by the current movie about her aptly titled Anita.

Many years ago, I read a poem by Jenny Joseph with this now well-known first line: "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple." Back then, wearing purple was considered rebellious! The poem concludes, importantly, with these less well-known lines:

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

So, rather than waiting (and to be fair, I have worn the actual color purple for decades), I will speak out more and with greater comfort. I recently hung a piece of evocative artwork outside my office at the College by the artist Rachel Kerwin that literally says: "Speak."

Speaking out -- and doing so without internal combustion -- isn't easy. But, as we celebrate Women's History Month, it is worth remembering that with leadership comes the potential to empower others and oneself to make the world a better place. Speaking out, in addition to leaning in, is now my motto, one I hope other women will share.

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