“A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult. “ —Melinda Gates
Who is the most powerful woman you know? For most of us, a name or two quickly comes to mind. Maybe that person is a coworker, a business leader, a friend, or perhaps your mother or your partner. Whoever she is, somewhere along the line she has inspired you in some way.
Do you ever wonder how she does it, and how she became the strong person you so admire? You know there have been obstacles; we all have them. Do you ever wonder what hers might have been, or might still be? In light of the avalanche of recent stories of sexual misconduct and the #MeToo movement, do you wonder if she has ever experienced any of the harassment or even abuse and how she feels about it?
I actually wonder this about powerful people, both men and women. How did the individuals I admire and learn from make their way and find their voices? How do we all overcome obstacles, doubt, and the inevitable mistakes or difficulties that can derail a career or a life plan? Why are some of us seemingly strong and resilient in the face of overwhelming challenges, while others break beyond repair?
As I have been thinking about this, I have also been trying to absorb and understand the recent epidemic of rampant sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment and abuse, which has brought down a lengthy list of powerful men. It has all left me quite speechless and sad, yet also angry and confused. What’s going on?
I think this is about voice. We all have to do better and speak up.
All I could think of as I looked at that #MeToo is, how are we still here? How is this still happening? How have we not made the world a safer place for our daughters like my father did for me? What happened to our voices and our strength?
How can this be?
The recent list of accused: Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Matt Lauer. Dr. Larry Nasser. These are only a few of the seemingly intelligent, talented men who abused their power over men and women, but mostly women. In the appalling case of Nasser, over scores of girls and young women, for years. We can only ask what on earth was going on at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University that people were so blind.
We all know this didn’t start yesterday, and it will not end tomorrow. There are many more stories, there will be more powerful people accused, and I’m not convinced that they are all men. In too many ways, we have perpetuated a culture of silence and shame around gender and sexuality and power.
We need to do better.
My reaction to the Larry Nasser bombshell has been a mixture of disbelief and fury. It has also been one of pride in the young women who spoke their truths in court, in heart-wrenching detail, about what he did to them and how it has left them with permanent emotional scars. They are healing, and they are finding their voices, but the impact will stay with them.
These women found their voices and were not silenced by Nasser’s pleas that he was not ‘strong enough’ to hear the endless testimony. “Too damn bad” is the nicest thing I have to say. 175 years in prison is not enough. Whatever happens to those who were complicit in his years of abuse and who ignored the voices of the girls and women who were not protected from harm is also not enough. It is time we all found our voices.
Having a voice.
Where is this all coming from, you might ask? Why now? What are we doing wrong? Better yet, what could we be doing better?
As my good friend Ralph Twombly wrote so beautifully in his recent article, https://www.prioritylearningresearch.com/articles/Me_Too_For_the_Men_Out_There_Listening, “…what happened to the lives of the women around us?” and “…Could we have contributed through our ignorance?”
To me, ‘guy perspective’ is really important and it is a relief to know that so many of the amazing and talented guys I know and have the pleasure to interact with are concerned and want to help.
I love that the conversations and questions are happening. Of course this not all men we’re talking about; it is the bad behavior of a few, but the impact is widespread. To be clear, every woman I know has a story of sexual harassment or abuse. Speaking up is the only way to have others hear the number of voices and understand that something needs to change.
If we can all begin to understand the power of voice, of listening, and of acknowledging the depth of the impact, we can continue to make progress.
Trust your voice.
I have struggled and struggled to put my thoughts and feelings on this issue into words. Why has this been so difficult? Normally I come up with an article idea, or someone suggests one, and I’m up a thousand words within a half hour. I have started this article no less than five times over the course of a month, gotten frustrated, pushed away the keyboard (may have slammed it once or twice), and walked away. I did not understand why I was stuck. I have never had writer’s block. Ever. Writing for me is like breathing. I don’t have to think about it, it just happens. Not this time.
I mentioned my frustration to a friend recently and he gave me some great advice: surrender to it and trust your voice. Wait, what? If you know me at all, you will know I do not embrace surrender. I am more likely to leave a welt with the white flag than I am to hand it over quietly. And yet, I am a writer, and for me, good writing is a form of surrender to my thoughts and feelings that might not otherwise find the light of day.
This is personal.
Oh. Trust your voice. It all started to make sense. My writing voice that I want to reflect so carefully, with crafted sentences and gently thoughtful ideas, is spitting angry. It has been since I first heard about these stories of misconduct and the #MeToo movement. This is personal.
Let me explain. I first saw #MeToo on Facebook. When I found out what it was, it knocked me back to a place I did not want to revisit and brought tears to my eyes. Why? Because every single woman I know is a #MeToo. We have all experienced some form of sexual harassment, discrimination, or abuse.
I am a little embarrassed to share my first reaction to #MeToo. I’m not big on emotional displays, especially public emotional displays. Honestly, when I saw it on a friend’s wall, my first thought was, do we have to do this? I don’t want to be reminded of any of it. I wasn’t thinking about the need for all to have a voice, because I have never felt like I didn’t have one. That does not mean I haven’t experienced comments, behaviors, and challenges that most men will never go through.
I was wrong in my initial reaction to #MeToo, and I know this because I started hearing from men I know well and care about, wondering what the big deal was, and feeling safe to say it to me out loud. After carefully listening, I finally had to reply, out loud, “The big deal is that I don’t know a woman who has not experienced some form of sexual harassment, discrimination because of gender, or sexual abuse or assault. Not one.
One of the experiences that I don’t want to remember is the stalker from my early 20’s who terrified me for months. He called my phone at all hours with obscene and horrifying language, he knew where I lived, left frightening notes on my car, and described to me what I wore in shocking detail. It seems crazy now, but the feeling of vulnerability and fear takes me back to a place of fragility that I struggle to process. I am physically bigger, fitter, and stronger than most women, not to mention mentally strong and confident, and I was afraid and powerless. Imagine leaving your apartment to go to work every day and wondering about every man you interact with: is he the one? What does he want? What will he do next? The power that this man held over me until I found out who he was is difficult to describe.
What I eventually learned was that this man was someone I knew but had perhaps spoken to only once or twice. Finding out his identity took his power away, thankfully, and a complaint from me and visit from the local police ended his activities. I did not have to file a restraining order or go to court. I am one of the lucky ones.
I also don’t want to remember the conversations in bars that were friendly until I said “no, thank you” to a drink or a dance and all of a sudden, the conversations turned threatening or just mean and rude. I can recite the angry words like these happened yesterday:
I know where you parked.
You think you’re too good for me.
Your hair is too short.
You’re too tall.
You’re not as pretty as you think you are.
Huh? Sure, that’s it.
I might have been really offended if it wasn’t so absurd. I remember thinking, I need to find better places to hang out, but these were some really nice hotels and I was a professional traveling on business.
Where do you go from there? “Nice to meet you, too?” I certainly wasn’t asking for a business card. I’m just going to take a wild guess that my male colleagues can sit in a bar alone without being bothered. They haven’t had to develop a “leave me the (insert pirate language here) alone” face and body language.
What about the workplace?
I have been and am fortunate to work with some smart, caring men who helped me along the way. I have had amazing leaders and mentors who have taught me more than I can ever repay. They have supported me and given me valuable feedback that has helped me move onward and upward. At times I have also experienced being paid less than my male counterparts, for equal work. Fortunately, those days are far behind me, but I will never forget how that felt. Yes, times have changed for the better, but there have also been occasions when I felt like I had to be twice as good as men to get the same recognition.
What I can do is continue to work to ensure that my daughter and the women on the way up now who are in my care as a leader will never know what any of this is like, and that men realize the need for women to have a voice.
Make no mistake, this is about the abuse of power, and it is perpetuated by silence and shame and fear of ridicule and reprisals. It is a cultural problem, and it is compromising the potential of half of our population.
We have to do better.
We have to find our voices and speak up, even when those voices shake, either with fear or with anger. And we need all of those good men who care and who love us to listen, give us an equal chance at a seat at the table, and speak up in support of our talents and ideas. There is no greater gift than to be respected enough to be challenged to do better.
What can you do?
If you have an emerging leader or a reticent colleague who may be struggling to find her voice, encourage her leadership development. One way to do that is by encouraging attendance at women’s leadership and learning functions.
Women who may not have been encouraged to exercise their voices and leadership skills from a young age like I was can benefit from a focused and encouraging learning environment where their voices are not overshadowed by men. It’s a way to offer a hand-up and one that they may not have ever had the opportunity to pursue.
The Women’s Leadership series at Priority Learning, for example, is a great opportunity to explore leadership and voice in a safe and empowering learning environment. The women who have attended from my organization have benefited greatly, and in turn, so has our organization.
In all honesty, it took me a while and some important conversations to understand why women-only leadership opportunities are important. I was reminded that I have never felt like I don’t have a voice and speaking up has never been a problem for me. I have had a seat at the table for a long time because of my strength, abilities, and drive. Not every woman has had the same experiences or opportunities that I have enjoyed.
Change the rules of engagement.
If you have a daughter, or granddaughter, or another young lady in your life, ask her about her ambition. What does she want to do or be? My father did this for me from the time I was small. He never laughed (only an occasional smirk or tease) when I declared that I wanted to be an astronaut or an FBI agent. He listened, showed interest, and taught me to speak up. He encouraged my passions, hanging the basketball hoop on the garage, buying the books, and paying for a really expensive college. He also taught me that my body is mine, and that my permission would always be required for someone else to touch me. He taught me to stand up straight, walk with confidence, and not to be afraid to look someone in the eye and say, “What you’re doing is not okay with me.”
Imagine if everyone had that power.
Give that gift. Be that man, or woman, who helps someone find and trust their voice. You will change two lives, I promise.
Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.—Stephen Covey
Thank you for reading. I would love to know what you think!
Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.