My 6-year-old daughter is bold, brave and confident. She can also speak in a scolding tone, quickly telling someone why they are wrong in a how-can-you-be-so-stupid kind of way. Every time I remind her that she can get her point across using her regular, powerful voice, she turns to a quiet, super sweet tone to repeat the words … and I frown and feel like I’m failing her! We talk about how strong her voice is and how she can be authoritative without barking at people. I don’t want her to talk in a sweet, low voice or to snap at people. I want her voice to command attention, show her confidence and inspire others to follow. I can only hope that if we have this conversation enough times, the message will sink in and stay with her into adulthood.
Many women are still confined by the feedback they received as little girls. They were told to be pretty and sweet. If they were a natural leader, they were called bossy. Instead they were encouraged to be helpful and put others’ needs first. They were praised at school for keeping their head down and working hard without interrupting. They started out bold, brave and confident, like my daughter, but they grew up to be women who doubt their abilities, don’t stand up for themselves and don’t have a voice, or at least not one they feel is worth sharing.
Melinda Gates said, “A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman.” So let’s find your voice.
First we need to address the bias that sometimes comes with a strong woman’s voice.
- An authoritative voice is not an aggressive voice.
- A passionate voice is not an emotional voice.
- Decisive is not brusque.
These unconscious biases penalize women for behaviors that are rewarded in men. They are rooted in a traditional view of women as motherly — caring, sensitive and warm — that does not always align with a strong voice. When a woman is authoritative, our brains can sometimes hear that as aggressive because of this perceived malalignment. Of course, being caring, sensitive and warm are all wonderful characteristics that thankfully are now recognized by most leadership experts as important for empathy and building relationships; in other words, they are also key characteristics of a good leader. Perhaps that is why Gloria Steinem said, “Women are always saying, ‘We can do anything that men can do.’ But men should be saying, ‘We can do anything that women can do.‘”
Now that we know to be on the lookout for those unconscious, biased thoughts, let’s talk about your voice. That’s right: you have a voice! You bring a unique perspective that only someone with your life experiences can bring. Finding your voice, allowing it to fill the room when you speak and taking credit for your ideas is the only way to ensure your unique perspective is considered and respected. It is the only way to gain a seat at the table. I would say you must be heard to truly be seen.
How can you take that first step to finding your own voice? Start with one meeting. Challenge yourself to prepare ahead of time to bring one idea or question to the meeting, and don’t let yourself leave without sharing it. Keep repeating this and scaling up to larger meetings, more important topics and more senior stakeholders. Challenge yourself each time to jump into the conversation sooner, to speak a little louder or with more authority or even to present an idea instead of asking a question. Keep taking these baby steps until you realize you’re running, and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. If you’re worried about how this new voice sounds, ask a peer or your leader for feedback so you can continue to grow and strengthen your voice.
If you are working to find your voice, if you are a parent to a little girl and are struggling like me to ensure she holds onto her confidence so she grows up continuing to know she is amazing — or you simply want to make the world a more equitable place for all people, join our Women LEAD community at Acxiom. Women LEAD helps women find their voice through events to educate Acxiom associates on challenges women face in the workplace, business skills and current events impacting women. Join us to learn more.