For several years I’ve taught communication & soft skills to corporate clients as well as high school and college-age students. My clients have ranged in age from 14 to 75 and have included both/all genders, races, religions, corporate titles and socioeconomic positions. Over those years, one thing has become glaringly obvious to me. Women don’t know how to speak about themselves.
Yes, this is a generalization, and yet it is accurate across all of the ranges mentioned above. Men, even young men, generally speaking, have no difficulty standing and telling the world what their skills are, what they excel at and what unique and staggering qualities they posses.
Women are a completely different matter. We are taught from a young age that “polite” is a more desirable quality than most others, to our own detriment. And so we demur. We smile and say, “I don’t know.” We let others speak for us as to our skills and abilities based on their opinion, and we let their opinion become the facts surrounding how and what we think of our own selves.
I’d like to call bullshit on this entire self-defeating circle.
What we need is not to wait for someone else to decide who we are, but to mindfully do it for ourselves. We need to tell girls and women that they have value to offer and we must give them the ability and a format to speak well about themselves out loud.
Yesterday my company ran a workshop for 75 high school students. Without exception, the young men stood up and were able to communicate, with varying degrees of success, what made them unique and valuable to the world. The young women had a much harder time. There were several that had to be coaxed and cajoled into speaking because they “…weren’t good at anything.” Teenage angst aside, it is not acceptable that young women who will be entering the work force very soon cannot find the words or the ability to speak well about themselves.
It’s not just teenagers. In one of the first workshops I ever ran, we were doing a communication exercise designed to move people out of their comfort zones and to emphasize the impact of non-verbal communication. This particular woman, 40ish, and a professional working at large tech company, had to recite lines of text while also communicating that she was Ms. America (It may sound silly, but this exercise is a revelation). In her first pass, she simply read the text, flat and without inflection or action. I coached her and asked her to imagine she was the most beautiful woman in the world, regal, applauded and supremely confident. The rest of her classmates cheered her onto another go at it, but once again, she read the text, this time softer and smaller. I could see she was getting upset. She couldn’t do the exercise because she couldn’t see a scenario, even a playacting one, where she would be thought of in those terms. The script she had subscribed to her entire life, had failed her.
This is where we start. We must write our own narrative. We decide that we’re smart, capable, beautiful, detail-driven, funny, empathetic leaders who can craft the script. We stop using language that apologizes for having thoughts and opinions. We accept compliments and responsibility in equal measures. We get very, very good at saying what we’re good at. We create opportunities for young women to speak about themselves. We flip the script.
After all, if we don’t tell the world how awesome we are, how will they know?
LB Adams is the Founder of Practical Dramatics, a soft skills training company headquartered in Charleston, SC. She frequently speaks about empowering women to empower themselves.