When Silence Is Not a Virtue for Women

When Silence Is Not a Virtue for Women

Friday, August 14, 2015 9:09 am

Grace Essen

Grace Essen

Grace Essen.

Recently, there was a post on BuzzFeed where a young female reporter wrote about feeling intimidated by a male actor (Paul Johansson) who she said made her feel very uncomfortable during an interview. She didn’t feel she could say anything to him at the time, but she wrote about it later — and what she got was a letter from the actor’s lawyer. How might it have ended differently if she had felt empowered to say something about his behaviour while it was happening? Here is what she wrote in part:

“A few years ago, my best friend and I were trying to explain to her boyfriend how it feels to be catcalled and objectified by men, how defenseless we felt in that moment, why it’s degrading, why ‘just walking away’ doesn’t make us feel better, and how the only way to win is by screaming, swearing, and “out-crazying” them.

Yes, men will say things to make women feel uncomfortable, but silence won’t make it stop. Silence won’t help women win, but that’s exactly how the older women in my life taught me to react. They told me not to respond and certainly not to yell back because of safety concerns or some other reasons. But by silently enduring catcallers, I am essentially watching a part of my humanity being taken away from me.

Catcalling and sexual harassment happen when men see women as slightly less than human — as if we exist purely for someone else’s enjoyment, as if we exist just for someone else to watch us squirm. Yelling back or writing about it, reclaims that humanity and reminds them that women are human — and more importantly, it reminds me that I am human. I only wish men like Johansson would see that.

The barriers women face are real and women’s silence happens at every level, in organizations of all sizes, at home, in our communities, on the streets, everywhere and so are the consequences for many who speak out. The question is: What role are women playing to change this, and where is change going to come from? The change is not going to come miraculously given by men, or from third parties, it’s going to be from us, speaking up about it at every opportunity. If we want to be heard, we’ve got to speak up.

When men have a problem, they are more likely to say something about it on the spot, work it out and move on. We often don’t, but we must be willing to learn to do that. We can do the same – speak up on the spot. It’s not about a rebellion; it’s not about wearing pink shirts and marching the streets saying that we’re expecting justice, it hasn’t worked that way.

It’s about bringing up issues in a productive way and creating awareness. The best place to start this conversation is everywhere: in forums, in large, small and medium companies, in start-ups, at home, at conferences, during parties, in the beauty salon, everywhere. If awareness is created in every forum, and now the internet and social media has put the power in our hands, everyone will eventually hear the message. We need to show that we can have a vibrant and honest conversation, conversations that will bring about change.

More women have started speaking up, in various ways and with various levels of success, that’s good news. When we bring up issues, men, too, have a chance to say their views and that will help us have balanced view which will enable us make better judgment and take better decisions.

Research has shown that teams with more women make better decisions than those without them, as do teams where many members of the group speak up. Associations, businesses and the society want the value of all the individual perspectives that both men and women bring and by not talking, we’re taking the issue off the table, and not much progress can be made.

So women, wherever our lives or experiences have led us, we should to be able to use our voices. But first, we have to find our voices. If we work together and speak up every single time – not complaining or whining, but just raising the awareness, and if thousands of women in thousands of meetings and forums bring it up, that’s when the change will happen. It might not end discrimination, but that will be a good start.

Grace Essen is the author of Successful Working Mom. She speaks and writes on making business, career & motherhood work @ www.mum2mumafrica.com. You may reach her at [email protected]

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