Joan Bragar, EdD
Coaching for Happiness in Love
How can our voices have impact — in organizations and in society?
More than ever women need to have our voices and our unique perspective included in the public conversation.
Coming into the work world and finding that it is not a pure meritocracy, that agreements are still made on the golf course, or late at night in a bar – where you might not want to be — can be very disappointing.
We are learning that the commonly held (and unconscious) mental models of leadership still prevail — images of a man heroically (and individually) accomplishing great feats. While the more relational leadership abilities, such as team building, improving communications across units, and developing other people’s capabilities – are still not rewarded with positions of power.
In my work,coaching accomplished professionals, to achieve results, I am finding, that as women begin to approach the “glass ceiling” of power and authority, it is increasingly difficult for them to be heard and acknowledged.
Most of us are unaware that we still carry deep cultural biases about the role of women in public life. For example, outspoken women are still criticized for appearing “too aggressive” a trait that defies gender expectations. Women still need to “smile” in the midst of conflict for others to feel comfortable. The worst part of this is that women also hold these unconscious cultural biases.
To have our voices heard, we need to begin by first validating our own perceptions and our own points of view.
In the groundbreaking work, Women’s Ways of Knowing, Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues described five stages that women go through in their relationship to knowledge. Due to the deep cultural norms about women’s role in public life, these stages are somewhat different than those that men go through.
Women’s Ways of Knowing
- Received knowledge – listening to the voice of others
- Subjective knowledge – listening to the inner voice
- Procedural knowledge – connected and objective knowledge
- Constructed knowledge – integrating the voices
Many women, even in the advanced professions, come from cultures where it is emphasized that women should be in Silence – accommodating the views of others. These cultural imperatives fly in the face of the very real and pressing need for women to share their knowledge and perspectives in business and public settings.
In my doctoral research about women and leadership I found that I had to first validate my own Subjective knowledge— to reflect on what it was like for me as a woman as I learned to lead. Before I was able to conduct an objective piece of research that could be heard by others, I needed to write about my own and other women’s subjective experience in leading.
For example, reflecting on my efforts to lead a campaign to obtain maternity benefits for myself and other women workers at Quincy Shipyard, I saw that I had to first “Receive knowledge” to understand how both men and women viewed women working in a shipyard. I learned from many discussions with men that they too were concerned about about the economic pressures families faced that compelled women into the workforce.
I also had to learn to trust my own Subjective knowledge, my own inner voice about what was right, including my right to keep my job.
Only after I validated my own perceptions was I able to engage in the Procedural knowledge”– critical analysis and connection to understand other points of view. Procedural knowledge can be difficult for many women who have never had the opportunity to validate their own Subjective knowledge.
I found that men as well as women supported women’s right to keep their jobs and to get benefits while on leave for pregnancy. 800, mostly male, shipyard workers signed a petition supporting women’s right to maternity benefits.
Only after moving through these “ways of knowing” was I able to get to a higher stage of “Constructed knowledge” –the ability to listen and share while maintaining one’s own voice. Fortunately, including the voices of both men and women resulted in wining the maternity benefits that were due us.
The women involved in this campaign were finally able to have our voices heard.
To have our voices heard:
- We need to validate our own experience and perceptions
- We need to receive other viewpoints
- We need to connect our views with objective evidence – to have impact in the world.
But most importantly we need to recognize the importance of having our voice heard in the public sphere.
As a Cheyenne proverb says,
“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons.”
Let us not have our hearts on the ground. Let us learn to have our voices heard, in connection with others, based on evidence, and based on our belief in our own perceptions. Only in this way can we have an impact.
Don’t be disheartened. Learn how to be heard. Your voice matters.