“I don’t like who defined what authority sounds like. I reject it.”

As a young woman working in a male-dominated profession, I often come across (and even seek out) advice to be more confident, more assertive, more vocal; to stop phrasing statements as cautious suggestions; to stop apologising so damn much; to back myself; to lean in as Sheryl Sandberg put it.

This advice all sound sensible. How else will women get equal pay if we don’t demand higher salaries during pay negotiations? How else will women get our voices heard if we don’t speak up in meetings? How else will women get people to take us seriously if we don’t sound confident in our suggestions?

But I had an ‘aha’ moment when I spied these tweets by Marian Call* on my husband’s computer screen last night:

Reading Marian Call’s tweets, I realised all the sensible pieces of advice for women to be more assertive, confident, authoritative, are variations on one troubling theme: Women need to act more like men to get by in this world.

In hindsight, I’ve come across similar concepts before. For example, in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain encourages introverts to work with their strengths instead of trying to conform to the expectations of an extroverted world, and I found a strong parallel between this and the expectations on women in a man’s world — constantly being urged to speak up, make yourself heard, act assertively to make people like and listen to you.

So instead, I encourage you to reject a wholly masculine image of power. The world needs more authority figures who speak gently and with consideration for their fellow human beings. The world needs more men and women who embrace their feelings. The world needs more leaders who apologise when they have made a mistake. The world needs a new definition of what authority sounds like.

*For those who know me well, Marian Call wrote the song my husband and I danced to at our wedding:

10 thoughts on ““I don’t like who defined what authority sounds like. I reject it.”

  1. It has long irritated me that to be feminist is understood as being more like men. I absolutely agree that we, starting with women, have to accept our qualities and that these are not necessarily a hindrance to getting ahead. I hope this idea catches on!

    • I think that is changing to a degree, with my generation of feminists being much more likely to embrace femininity than early feminists were – although it feels a bit like a step sideways rather than forward, because in some ways it just reinforces traditional gender roles (especially with makeup and fashion). But when it comes to social behaviour, there’s a lot to be said for embracing more traditionally feminine ways of being!

  2. Women in business and politics, and often in real life as well, are caught in a double bind: If you’re not assertive, you’re not heard and not effective. If you are assertive, you’re thought of as a bitch–or fill in the denigrating word of your choice. I long ago came to terms with (and at time embraced) being thought of as a bitch, but as I got older I found that I can strategically tone myself down at times–not necessarily around men; in fact, often around women–in order to leave more space for them, without giving up any part of who I am. Which I guess is the gift most women bring to the table to start with. It happens that i didn’t and had to learn it. Ve-e-e-ry very slowly.

    • I’m generally too quiet and mild-mannered in person to attract the bitch label myself; however, a few of my friends have been accused of having “resting bitch face”, which just goes to show that women don’t even have to be assertive to be thought of as bitches.
      Good on you for learning to balance being assertive and leaving space for others. I suspect all of us – men and women both – could do better at that.

  3. Rach, great post and food for thought. I love the Cain book, and you are right, there are definitely parallels there for reframing the point of view. Also, a big thank you for including the Marian Call song; I’m not familiar with her work but I LOVED what I heard and it seems that she is both a great musician and a very smart savvy woman.

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