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Girls’ Voices Are Non-Negotiable
Here’s How to Keep Girls Raising Their Voices in a Confusing Culture
These are some of the names we grew up being called:
Girls who raise their voices, who ask for what they need, and who say how they feel risk being ostracized by peers and adults alike.
It’s a confusing time to be a girl: on the one hand, we may have opened every door for girls—yet we still expect them to creep through sweetly, and silently. If they don’t, we police them with labels like “bossy.”
In 2008, the Girl Scout Research Institute found that one-third of surveyed girls who did not want to be leaders said they feared being laughed at, making people mad at them, coming across as bossy, or not being liked by people. (PDF)
It is a problem that only intensifies in adulthood. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant have observed,
“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.”
Women have unfortunately adapted: studies find that female professionals, even those working at the most senior levels, speak less in meetings as an act of self-preservation.
So how do we protect girls from a culture uncomfortable with their voices, yet still raise our daughters to advocate for themselves? Telling them to pipe down isn’t an option: it’s not enough for girls to simply have strong opinions. They have to know how to express them, so they can pursue their dreams, achieve their potential, and change their world for the better.
- Make your home a sanctuary where girls and women can speak up. When your daughter asks for what she needs assertively, resolves a conflict gracefully, or shares her feelings, tell her you’re proud of her. Recognize the moment and let her know you appreciate hearing not just what she said, but how she said it. Avoid using gendered words like “bossy” to label an outspoken girl.
- Focus on the value of her voice, not the outcome of using it. There are times when we summon the courage to speak up, only to be shut down. Perhaps the other girl refuses to listen, or can only relate to her own opinions. That’s a natural, if painful, moment in life, but it’s not cause for giving up. Sometimes it’s enough for a girl just to know she’s spoken her mind, regardless of the outcome. Remember: we don’t have to be heard in order to speak up. Those are two separate experiences. Above all, the most important thing for your daughter is to feel the authority of her own voice, and to flex the muscle of using it.
- Encourage the men and boys in your life to value female voices. When girls see men and boys embracing female voices, girls are more likely to bring other men and boys into their lives who do the same. By surrounding themselves with those who celebrate female voices, they reduce the likelihood of entering relationships and work environments that silence them.
- Teach your entire family about gender bias, and practice talking back to it together. When you see a less conventionally attractive, opinionated girl mocked on a television show, or view an ad where a woman’s body is collapsed and underdressed alongside a fully clothed, muscular man, talk about it. Question the value of scapegoating opinionated women. When the whole family practices cultural literacy, you create a group of change agents who take that mindset to school, work, and beyond.
Girls’ voices are non-negotiable. When we create homes that nurtures them, and give our families the tools to critique a silencing culture, we get closer to the day when the word “bossy” is obsolete.