During International Women’s Day, we always have the darkest issues on women clearly in sight, as well as their exceptional successes that we love to celebrate. For a change, I do not want to talk about coercion. Not about the umpteenth, public matter in the area of unacceptable behavior. I want to talk about the ‘ordinary’ working-life, and how much women are expected to keep their mouths shut. So much so, that the average woman in the Netherlands still apologizes for the choices that she makes, and even asks permission for those choices. Besides, have you noticed how often women are being interrupted?
We don’t have to look that far across the border on International Women’s Day, or bring in the toughest themes of coercion against women, to be able to reflect on the age-long, imbalance between the position of men and women. We don’t need to celebrate women’s most exceptional successes because they don’t come naturally. No, Women’s Day is just as much about the simplest, everyday hassles at work, and the business relationships that we have to maintain.
A lot still goes wrong in how we do business, or how we treat each other in working-life. In that context, the intentions and attitudes – not to mention concrete behavioral expressions – of a lot of people towards women are still very regrettable. The sexism with which we treat women remains extremely persistent.
Interrupted five times every ten minutes
For example, women have to deal with a harrowing number of sexist comments – every day. On average, there are three unacceptable statements in a working-day of eight hours (!). Women also have to anticipate the decisions that are being made for them by default, without having sufficient influence in an adequate manner. Think of decisions about unequal pay, and the division of the roles within the team.
In doing so, women must be able to think strategically at least five steps ahead because the ground is cut during the conversations. Because people can still feel threatened by their words, women have to decide whether to act dumber than they are this time, or whether to hide nothing. They can expect an interruption up to five times every ten minutes (!) when they speak. I repeat: five times every ten minutes. In short, women must be able to switch gears at lightning speed.
The longer they do this, the better they get at it. So they have to pull the right option from their ‘intellectual drawer’ – a balanced choice between IQ and EQ. Then, if necessary, they must exchange that content for another option, or yet another option, or yet another option… to keep their turn with the jumble of their choices. All of this while continuing to maintain, and preferably strengthen the relevant relationships.
Women who have trained themselves in doing this sometimes take back their turn, by using a specific expression. Examples include: Let me finish my point. Let me talk. No. Whoa, wait a minute. I am not finished yet. I said that. That’s exactly what I just said. This isn’t funny. I’ll interrupt you for a moment because… What you’re saying just isn’t possible. This makes me uncomfortable. And so on.
Take up place
Being interrupted does something to the human psyche; with one’s self-esteem, self-respect, and self-confidence. In other words, with one’s place in the world. It is therefore no coincidence that women have difficulty with making choices. In other words, with taking up their place.
Choices that women were never allowed to make for centuries. And secondly, choices that they still have to substantiate in such a manner, that women feel obliged not to doubt themselves, and to explain everything. To apologize for their choices. Above all, that they feel compelled to ask permission for their choices.
We are all too happy to dismiss women as ‘bitches’, when they see through it all. When they refuse to explain themselves when it is not necessary at all. And when they criticize these outdated and irrelevant practices. With International Women’s Day, I would like to celebrate their voices.
Because in general, they are not that difficult at all, but rather fair. Moreover, their guts do not detract from the self-esteem, self-respect, and self-confidence of the mature man. The man who can only find these pillars in himself in relation to how he relates top-down to the woman who supposedly is below him, is often another sad case of suppression of human dignity of himself and of others.
Only we still don’t have enough ‘female rebels’ who dare to speak out. Even in times of the new law around whistleblowers, and an evolving culture of speaking out. Not even in times of so many public scandals on unacceptable behavior. Of masses of promises under the name of culture and mentality changes.
Promises that often cannot be fulfilled at all, because there simply is no holy grail for the assessment and management of people’s intentions, attitudes, and behavior. If that were the case, no one would remain elusive to the other.
To understand why we do not have enough women speaking out yet, we can look at a range of patterns. If we know the patterns, we know what the risks are. We will discuss those without further discussing the solutions here.
Women don’t speak up because…
Women don’t speak up because they don’t think it is their business to do so. They feel that this is not what is being asked of them. That it is not part of their duties or seniority. All while expressing concern, and speaking out about something, is everyone’s responsibility.
Women don’t speak up because they think something is normal, including unethical practices. Even if something goes against their norms and values. In other words, against their own moral compass and personal blueprint. Policies, including codes of conduct, can lead to somewhat more robust decision-making frameworks, clarifying what is, and what is not just. But that framework is still limited.
Women don’t speak up because they think nothing is going to change anyway. So they have no confidence in the people who have to solve cases, or in the solutions. All too often, this is mainly because they have heard nothing back when they have reported an issue. They weren’t taken seriously, so why try again? The well-known cover-up and look-away-culture…
Women don’t speak up because they think it is not too bad given the seriousness of a problem. It is often not clear at all what can be reported, and at what stage. Speaking up is not encouraged because companies fear loss – financial, reputation, talent, innovation, and more.
Women do not speak up because they fear reprisals, for example in the form of hostility towards them. Standing up for justice often involves great sacrifice. Monitoring how they are doing over time, if they have spoken up, is only the beginning of the solution. However, practice shows that this is handled poorly.
Women do not speak up because they assume that the leaders already know. All while matters at the top are not visible or known regularly, and the leaders often have very different, personal interests. Sometimes, the top itself is part of the problem.
Women do not speak up because they fear that their loyalty will be questioned, and therefore that they do not fit in with the so-called culture of a company. Women are often even more wary, because anonymous reporting is not regulated systematically, making use of the technological possibilities to do so. Features that should ensure that a leader cannot find out who has spoken out. If we consider that at least 60% of the first reports are made anonymously, we know enough.
Women don’t speak up because they don’t want to risk their jobs, and deal with blame, retaliation, or any adverse consequence whatsoever. Especially if they experience the relationships they have built up as personal, for example as a kind of working family. My favorite that I’ve been guilty of for years.
Let’s not work towards a society in which we have to pass a law to not interrupt women. Instead, let’s use our common sense, and be much more willing to accept the freedom of mind and speech of each other. Because only in the space between each other can we really meet ourselves and others – Women’s Day or not. Nevertheless, I wish everyone a happy and wise Women’s Day.
The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.