One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2018 was to say what I meant. No more beating around the bush — what I had to say mattered. No more subtle signals or passive aggressive messages. I like to think of myself as an outspoken feminist and wanted to practice what I preached.
At Yale’s Leading Ladies Gala this past fall, a spoken-word poet articulated how even the voices of the strongest women were still subdued. Upon reflection, I was amazed by how much I remained stuck in the habit of quieting my own voice. I noticed that my messages were still littered with undue “haha”s and “lol”s meant to soften the edges of my words — as if my words were too strong and needed to be toned down. More than once, I have found myself hunched over female friends’ or coworkers’ laptop screens, proofreading important emails. We always had certain rules. No more than one sentence that ended in an exclamation mark so that we would be taken seriously. Always begin with an overly friendly email greeting to seem “approachable.” When asking for something, always soften it with an “if that’s okay” or “if possible.”
I also see this same phenomenon in seminars and sections. How? Because I’m one of them, too. Always adding qualifiers and clauses of uncertainty: “Does that make sense?” “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure if this is right,” despite having rehearsed the answer in my head multiple times before speaking up. At the same time, I noticed how my male counterparts formulated their thoughts out loud, opening their mouths before even fully finishing a thought, professors continually praising their ideas. Why couldn’t I project my thoughts with the same confidence? In far too many instances, professors would stand by silently as men consistently talked over women or were disrespectful to them in class.
However, it’s not just about work emails and classrooms and job interviews — this phenomenon carries over into the personal. The group chats where we brainstormed the “perfect” response, all so that the boy we met at a party would ask us out again. Even after it took one potential love interest eight hours to reply to my texts, I struggled to articulate how frustrated I was out of fear of being too forward. Now that I sit back and think about it, the time women spend debating whether or not to say “what’s up?” or “how are you?” is a little silly. What we think should matter, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it in whichever way we want.
What stuns me is that even the most awe-inspiring and intelligent women fall culprit to this. It is no longer just about being friendly — rather, we’ve been taught to be friendly to a fault, to always make others comfortable at our own expense.
Or even worse, my least favorite phrase that is used to soften the female existence: “I’m sorry.” In leadership positions, we apologize for exercising authority. We apologize for being honest. We even apologize for other people’s wrongs. Not only does this lessen the weight of sincere apologies, but we are quick to take blame in order to avoid confrontation. I will tell you this — stop unnecessarily apologizing. And most importantly, do not apologize for existing. As Reshma Saujani LAW ’02 explains in a Ted Talk, all of this stems from the fact that young girls are taught to be perfect, while young boys are taught to be brave.
It’s time that we changed all that for the next generation of girls. So women, instead of spending time formulating the perfectly worded and insightful comment or email, let’s just get to the point. Your voice can’t be quashed forever — it deserves to be heard. Come off strong. Take up space. Once we normalize it, we’ll wonder why we were ever silent in the first place — and set an example for girls who are coming of age. As we strive for success and lofty achievements, we should also be speaking up in everyday contexts. We should not have to get used to being talked over. Start breaking norms as students, so that it’s not a surprise for others when we sit at the head of the table.
And though it’s been mentioned many times before, it deserves another reminder. Male peers, especially those in leadership positions, should pay more attention in meetings or in class, noticing when women’s points are brushed off and speaking up to help amplify their voices. While we shouldn’t rely on male voices to validate female ones, there is a current imbalance of power that simply can’t be ignored.
We should be always respectful and thoughtful in what we say. But when we begin to stay silent more than we speak, something is amiss. Looking back, I have regretted saying nothing at all far more times than I have regretted speaking up, and that’s coming from someone who rarely keeps her mouth shut, as my friends can attest. So … let’s say it, ladies!
Hala El Solh is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .