Raising Our Daughters to Speak Up

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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:

Pistol. Bossy. Spaz. Loudmouth. Nudnik (that’s Yiddish for pest).

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.”

I do not want to be a leader because people will think I'm bossyIn 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.

How do we protect girls from a culture uncomfortable with their voices, yet still raise our daughters to advocate for themselves?Consider some of these strategies:

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.


Additional Resources

Ban Bossy tips for parents.

Express Yourself by Emily Roberts.

 

  1. Sarah

    Is there a similar post for “dramatic?” I feel this term is used just like bossy. My husband calls our daughter dramatic when she is trying to use her voice. I disagree that she is being dramatic, but I haven’t found a useful or effective tool to get my husband to see that she isn’t being “dramatic” or bossy. On a side note, he is “directive” while addressing her. I know she sees it as aggressive and this doesn’t allow her voice to be heard. We are slogging through this.

    Reply
    • Dorothy Ponton, Digital Marketing Manager

      Hi Sarah,
      Our Programs team weighed in and said: It sounds like a type of gaslighting; if someone is expressing their emotions and they’re being told they’re “dramatic” or “overreacting” they’re made to feel their response is out of proportion even though they’re expressing genuine feeling. This is also linked to women being referred to as “crazy” when they’re expressing emotions.
      Asking questions is almost always more effective than labels and accusations. “Can you explain what you mean?” or “I see that you’re really upset, will you tell me what’s going on?” or “Can we come back to this conversation after we’ve both had a minute to breathe?”
      Try this resource for more on this.

      Reply
  2. […] I speak my mind in meetings, I simply don’t do meeting speak, but the only reason I haven’t been more heavily penalized in my leadership positions (but I have in lower level roles) is because I have had a couple of rare bosses who respect me and my knowledge. I hope that our next generation doesn’t have to face as many cultural barriers to being heard. […]

    Reply
  3. Tabitha

    I have a 13 year old daughter who has had positive experiences with GLI summer camps. I was surprised to find out that a 13 year old boy in her class (and other boys) were commenting on her body parts (for example: “are those real or fake?”) and calling her a slut and whore. My daughter tells me that such comments come from boys her age regularly. When I asked how she responded–she said she didn’t. I was shocked because I believed she had a strong voice. She told me she didn’t know how to respond to such comments. We practiced a bit but she still seems unsure of herself. Help!

    Reply
  4. Kirsty Lockhart

    How do I unsubscribe? There does not seem to be a button for this. My daughter and I have taken a couple of great GLI classes and that is how I got onto this list. For the last 6 months your emails have been drivel that buy into stereotypes more than focus on assertiveness. Drivel example: “When she says stop yelling at me.” Guess what “she” is bucking in that situation? Parental authority male or female — not saying her mother fits a mean stereotype for speaking up. Why don’t you find an accurate example and not cite a tween boundary check? I am done with the emails.

    Reply
    • Dorothy Ponton, Community Engagement Manager

      Hi Kirsty,

      I’ve unsubscribed your email in our participant records, and within our email software itself. Thanks for letting us know how you feel about the emails. I’m sad to hear you find them to be drivel. It was not our intention. If you want to share any more feedback, or for some reason you still receive unwanted emails, please feel free to reach out to me directly: dorothy (at) girlsleadership (dot) org.

      Reply
  5. Elizabeth Toms

    My 9 year old daughter is quite assertive and has strong leadership potential. It seems I am in the awkward position of trying to get her to listen to others and be more collaborative. I certainly don’t want to suppress her gift but I am unsure of how to foster her leadership skills from here. (She just got uninvited from a group project.)

    Reply
    • Hanna

      Hi Elizabeth, I’ve just seen your question and I want to share my approach working with girls on this area. Great leaders are able to use their power (as your daughter has in buckets) to bring out the best in others. As a starter, I would initiate a discussion with her on all her positive leadership attributes (as you’ve identified) and then ask her to consider how she can bring out the best in her friends to allow them to shine? Ask her what skills she has that will enable her to support her friends’ growth so that she is using her power to lift them up. Then from there, I’d consider asking her to visualise a scenario in the future in a group activity, and what qualities she might use to support the participation of her friends to encourage them to use their voices. By re-framing her leadership potential as a tool to elevate and support others, you may just allow her to own her qualities in services of her friends and team mates. Let me know how it goes!

      Reply
    • Monica

      Some girls have alot to say and their friends patience in listening gets tested. It think it is important that we girls/women learn that we can trust our own voice even if others aren’t able or willing to listen.
      Some ideas:
      Maybe her spending time writing or recording her thoughts would help. It could also be possible that she isn’t as confident as she appears and overcompensates by being bossy. Maybe she needs to develop some internal self-esteem and ability to express fear and anxiety. Helping her voice her feelings rather than thoughts/ideas might help. I also, wonder if you can practice at home–you two taking turns sharing thoughts and feelings so she can develop the skill of listening and empathy.

      Reply

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