Men of tomorrow a key ingredient in giving the women of tomorrow a voice

It might be hard to imagine if you know me now, but I used to have a physical reaction to speaking up for myself. I was bullied quite considerably in primary school and would avoid standing out – but occasionally felt strongly enough about something to speak up. Before I’d even said anything, I’d get hot, my throat would close up and I would turn a bright shade of red, all from just mentally preparing to share my opinion on something. Even in my twenties I would occasionally still suffer from the same thing. Now, fortunately, I have got control of these extreme reactions but it is something I often think about - primarily because I am the mother of a beautiful little girl, that I would like to raise to be strong, confident and outspoken.

But here’s the thing. I would also like to raise her to be polite and respectful - to know the difference between when to speak up, and when to just listen. Raising assertive women is something that I’m sure is top of mind for many parents, and particularly in a year like 2017. The global conversation around gender equality and more specifically, sexual harassment, was sparked back in October by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and has shown no signs of slowing down, with several other high-profile allegations being made both overseas and here in Australia. The #metoo campaign, started by Alyssa Milano in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, showed just how many women have been affected by sexual harassment in all of its various forms. And what got me thinking the most was that so many of these women have held their silence for decades – for fear of losing their jobs, losing their influence, losing the respect of their peers.

What makes us so scared of using our voice? I have asked myself this many times over the years, and still haven’t come up with a clear answer. I do clearly remember being taught that young girls shouldn’t be loud and boisterous, like boys, and to be a “good girl” you should use your manners, be nice to everybody, and avoid making a scene. And in raising my daughter I still firmly believe in good, old-fashioned manners and kindness, but I certainly want her to feel justified and safe in standing her ground when she chooses to. And so the question begs itself – how exactly do I encourage her to be respectful and well-behaved, yet unafraid to speak up when the occasion calls for it?

One thing I think is clear is that gender roles play a huge role in our reluctance to speak up – research out of Yale University suggests that women in the workplace are, shockingly, still penalised socially for engaging in assertive or dominant behaviours that men are celebrated for. High achieving women are in fact seen as ‘abrasive’ or ‘bossy’, whereas men expressing themselves in the same way aren’t described in such negative terms. Interestingly, non-verbal forms of communication such as body language and facial expressions don’t harm women’s social or professional status. But therein lies the issue – how do we change the legacy we’ve been left by our own upbringing, and actively teach our daughters to use their voices?

Again, I don’t have a definitive answer. For me, learning how to use my voice has been about trusting my instincts and learning that being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. It’s about learning how to establish personal boundaries and how to politely but firmly communicate when those boundaries have been crossed – by anyone, male or female. And lastly it’s also about surrounding yourself with the right people – with people that know you, that will back you up and will value the things that are important to you.

So I will do my best to instil those things in my daughter, but also in my son. Our men of tomorrow have such an important role in making sure our women of tomorrow can be everything they want to be – strong, confident, and never afraid to use their voice.

Originally published in The West Australian (23rd December 2017).