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Choose to Challenge: Why do women hesitate to speak up?

A number of women still remain silent or feel hesitant to speak up whether at work or in personal or social circles.


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Sonica Aron

3 years ago | 5 min read

A number of women still remain silent or feel hesitant to speak up whether at work or in personal or social circles. When they have to speak for another person, or a larger cause, they can be vocal. But when it comes to speaking about themselves, their needs, their concerns, they tend to put it on a back burner.

There is enough and more research that shows that women do not negotiate for themselves. When it comes to applying for a job, they do not apply for it until and unless they feel they are 100% qualified for it, where as a male counterpart will apply for it even if he not 100% qualified for it.

As a consulting firm, we have worked with innumerable clients where we have addressed the areas where women feel that professional networking as a skill is not for them. Or participating in team meetings feels uncomfortable, they feel their voices get drowned or are not valued.

They know that they have valid points to make, but they choose to remain silent. They will prefer to send an email of share their views in a 1-2-1 meeting. Another area is where women feel that sharing their achievements, in social media, or over group mails feels like boasting.

Where building one’s visibility is a key requirement for success in today’s world, women shy away from doing so. Many believe that with so many stereotypes already existing, asking for help will make them look weak, and that stops them from seeking help- from peers at work, or family members at home. This makes their journey lonely and often untenable.

There can be many reasons for their hesitation. According to studies, men and women communicate differently. Women are often less assertive than men in their workplace. Men listen to solve the problem while women listen to gain understanding. Men in meetings, give a report to enhance their power while women share information to help others to gain trust.

Usually, men offer a solution immediately while women show empathy and aim at building a better understanding of the situation/ context. Another root cause is years of social conditioning, which conditions women to be 'likeable', not be pushy, put concerns of others above her own and so on.

Further, when it comes to harassment- whether emotional or sexual, many women still choose to remain silent about their traumatizing experience. If looked deeper into what are the actual reasons for their silence-

·       Historical baggage inhibits us

·       Silence because we lack hope, hope for justice, hope of being heard

·       Penalised for speaking up, what if I am seen as a trouble maker? What will people think? It will bring shame to me and my family.

·       Avoid breaking norms and facing difficult conversations. The fear of reliving the incident again during investigations and facing the accused.

Women do speak up about issues such as work-Life balance and other issues but when it comes to harassments a number of women remain silent as it might bring ‘shame’ to the family, or the woman herself might be type casted as a ‘troublemaker’.  

It is the Indian culture where we still don’t want to give women or young girls a chance to speak up or express their thoughts and ideas on sensitive matters like harassment, menstruation, menopause in Public either consciously or unconsciously.

We inculcate in their minds that don't speak, don't draw attention. Unconsciously they exhibit the same behaviour in their workplaces. 

The actual issue is that we don’t talk about genuine issues or problems, prefer to stick to comfort zones by talking or discussing safe topics like work life balance, networking and need for individual growth; but we avoid or do not want to talk about Gaslighting, Mansplaining, Wage Gap, and Harassment (either emotional or sexual) or bullying. 

Many also believe that discussing more sensitive subjects will not lead to any results or will create unnecessary trouble. They do not hold out much hope in the overarching system to change things; sure, everybody professes lofty principles but no one cares about bringing about real change.

And given the limited time and resources, therefore, they argue, they would rather spend time on something that can be done like day-care facilities than trying to bring around mindset change, changes in policies for stricter management of conduct, both verbal and physical.            

Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room which even women are afraid to discuss – women are often punished/penalised for speaking up! In a very in-depth study by Dr. Adam Grant, he found that not only were male and female employees not given equal credit for ideas related to improving the company/business, but the female employees were also perceived as less useful as compared to their male counterparts who gave similar suggestions and acted similarly!

Dr. Victoria Brescoll states that women, especially women who occupy positions of power, do not speak up because they know they will be at the receiving end of backlash for this act of raising their voice! Digging deeper into the issue, in a study undertaken by her she asked a sample group of men and women to evaluate the competency of a fictional CEO (both male and female) who voiced their opinions.

She found that the group rated the male executives who voiced their opinions 10% higher while female executives who also raised their voices on issues were punished with 14 percent lower ratings. "If this is not proof, I am not sure what  is! Who wants to speak up if the penalties are so steep?” (Women's Web for women who do , 2019)

Even today Gender biases still shape the rules of social engagement for people across communities. Therefore, the need to focus on changing the environment in social spaces is crucial rather than changing women's behaviour.

"Diversity efforts may have given women a seat at the table – or, in the context of the pandemic, a place on the Zoom call – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a voice.” (World Economic Forum , 2021)

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama

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Sonica Aron

Sonica Aron is founder and Managing Partner at Marching Sheep, an HR advisory firm that specialises in helping organisations become more productive and profitable through streamlined HR policies and processes, relevant competencies and behaviours


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