A year ago, I had the fortune to come across a lady who was learning English so that she could write a book about her journey as a refugee. This lady had to flee her home as the regime did not value education or academia and as a highly educated women, she was seen as a threat. I felt instantly grateful that as a woman I had the opportunity to use my intelligence for betterment and also humbled by how vitally important this lady felt it was for her to find her voice and share her story.
In Yorkshire, one of my closest friends, dedicates her life to teaching refugee women English so that they have a chance to become part of a British community. Through this endeavour, she has learnt so much about the difficulties women of non-Western cultures face, who without a voice are unable to ask for much needed help and support.
How coincidental is it that the two individuals that have inspired me the most are helping women to find their voice? The bigger question though, is why is it that women often need help to find their voice the most?
These are two extreme examples of how by giving women a voice we can understand better their plight but in our everyday professional lives, women also need help to speak up. In ‘How Women Rise’, by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, they refer to the phenomenon of “speaking while female”. Studies show that women perceive that men often have trouble hearing them when they speak but are we also our own worst critics? I can remember how daunting it was when I first had to present at a board meeting of senior male colleagues and how frustrated I was that I became flushed and skipped over my words in order to get the ordeal over quicker. As a result of imagining how little impact I must have been having, I chose to lose my voice rather than suffer another humiliating presentation.
However, was this just about gender? Would I have felt anymore comfortable in a room of senior female colleagues? Probably not. For me, finding the courage to share my opinions; to persuade and influence was about having the right skill set to express myself clearly, articulately and confidently so that regardless of the audience, my voice was heard. It started by focusing on my message, being succinct, using my body language to increase my sense of presence and most of all, believing in the value of my words.
It would be foolish to think though that having a voice merely comes from being the loudest person in the room. One of the greatest elements to having a voice is listening. Having the emotional intelligence to know when to speak up and when to let others share their story means that our voices carry further when it counts.
So take a deep breath, find your voice as what you have to say might just make a difference.