To Speak Softly or Roar Loudly? That is the question

Women, did you want a paycheck during the most recent recession? You’d better use a gentle tone; your job was on the line. Want your rights? Speak softly (and give the big stick to the man sitting next to you).

Between the weekend’s Jobs section of the New York Times and a mid-week discussion over lunch with Suraya Pakzad, a strident women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, I got the message loud and clear: if women want to be heard, we need to watch our words. Our lives (and livelihood) depend on it.

As most people know, in the United States, women comprise a majority of the workforce. Yet according to a recent Corporate Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, “women employees are usually concentrated in middle-level or even entry positions and remain still hard to find in board or senior management positions in most industries and countries… barriers to women in top jobs included a ‘lack of role models.’ Others included the ‘general norms and cultural practices’ and ‘masculine or patriarchal corporate culture.’

I’m sure most of us here in the UK, like in the US, have first-hand experiences of double standards at our jobs. And there are research studies to corroborate our stories. According to one study, participants were given descriptions of women and men with more or less equivalent qualifications who had been applying for fictitious jobs. No wonder women are often overworked. They just have to prove more ability.

When they were told that some of the candidates had tried to work their way to higher salaries, the participants in the study (whether women or men) found fault at almost twice the rate with women who negotiated the salary. I guess that explains why women make on average 18 percent less than men (or as high as 40% less for more senior positions).

So, what are we to do? According to an article in the Jobs section of the NY Times, “Well, ultimately, women need to be absolutely more mindful and apply far greater finesse at times they convey their messages. Women must apparently become much better in chameleon communications and learn to better read our audiences and adjust our style to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Herein lies also the reason that feminists should make themselves be heard in the immigration discussion, not only in the UK, but across the globe.

My knee-jerk initial reaction is: NO. I don’t want to have to accommodate a patriarchal culture. The culture needs to change to accommodate me, and the other 50% of the population like in the UK.

But I would like a successful career.

A conversation this week with Suraya Pakzad about her life and work promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan centered on the same issue. Except there it isn’t jobs women are fighting for, it’s their basic right to an education, run for a political position, have access to health care, etc., etc.

There are women in the country who (like Malalai Joya) are resisting just about anything regarding this patriarchal system whereas some others (like Suraya) are believing in the deep value of setting up and maintaining good relationships from within this system while working from a belief in respect for all that has to do with Afghan tradition and culture.

There is nothing new about this dilemma. The issue of how to convince men with power to grant women their rights has been around just about as long as women and men have. And the suggestion that perhaps it is a matter of asking nicely enough or providing convincing enough evidence that women’s rights are a value-added investment is also not new, also when it comes to the oddest jobs around in the UK.

Despite my initial knee-jerk reaction to being seen as a “chameleon communication addict,” Suraya makes a compelling case for respectful confrontation. And there is no doubt that she is making great strides for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Suraya was named one of TIME magazine’s top 100 people a few years way back and U.S. government officials are frequently looking to her for guidance on how to bring about change in Afghanistan.

I’m torn. I don’t want to concede to communication styles that are gender-acceptable and yet wonder if there isn’t some value in it if the goal is “for them to get the message without wanting to get back at you.”