HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsI am woman, hear me purr

I am woman, hear me purr

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But why purr, when you can roar! Why do women tip-toe around issues that are important to them?
Why do we whisper when everyone else is babbling? Soft power? Not exactly. It is more likely that we do this because we are afraid of disapproval, reluctant to draw negative attention to ourselves and all too invested in the subconscious agenda of putting relationship before performance or outcome.

CatalystInc is an non-governmental organisation that focuses on research relating to the expansion of opportunities for women in business.

They have put together a tool called the Catalyst Pyramid, which is a graphic representation of the number of women in the workforce in a particular economy.

The latest pyramid, published in May this year shows women making up 46,6% of the labour force, but only 3,6% of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies. (www. catalyst.org) So there is more parity between men and women at the beginning of their careers but as they rise in rank, there is a decreasing presence of women in business. The question is, why?

Of course questions like this don’t come with one simple answer and there could be a plethora of reasons why a situation such as this prevails. And although the research is based on studies conducted in the West, a quick look around us would confirm that the pyramid is a reality even here in Zimbabwe.

One of the most prevalent responses to the problem of women’s advancement in business has been that women simply don’t ask for what they want. It is this tendency to purr instead of roaring apparently, that prevents women from getting ahead.

This somehow reminds me of the verse in the Bible which reads: “You do not have because you do not ask, and when you ask, you ask amiss”! (James 4:2) A different context perhaps, but the words themselves apply.

It seems that when women do ask, not only do they go about it the wrong way, timidly, and opening with statements that nullify what they are about to say, but they also take no as a final, damning answer which crushes their confidence and causes them to retreat, instead of practising pushback skills.

When I was looking up definitions for pushback, I discovered that in aviation, pushback is an airport procedure in which a large aircraft is moved backwards using low-profile vehicles called pushback tractors or tugs.

I picture the large majestic aircraft being reversed externally by a nondescript little tractor and this helps me understand the concept of pushback in communication.

Internet dictionaries define pushback as the act of forcing the enemy to withdraw, or the ability to cause it to move back by force or influence.
I like the definition proposed by Selena Rezvani, author of Pushback: How Smart Women ask . . . and Stand up . . . or What They Need. She says:
“Pushback represents the group of skills that allows us to take a stand, be firm, or advocate on our own behalf. It encompasses our adeptness at advancing a cause, making a request and persuading others of the merits of our view. We can use it to go after what we want, and we can use it to defend what is ours and what we need.”

Her book suggests that women’s advancement in the workplace is directly related to their ability to practice pushback skills.

But what is it that makes women shy away from pushback, and cripple their careers by asking limiting questions like: What if I am wrong? What if I am not ready? What if they laugh at me? What if they think I am being too pushy? What if they dismiss my idea? What if they stop taking me seriously? What if, what if, what if . . .?
Research shows that in self-assessment, women tend to underestimate their abilities while men generally overestimate theirs.
In a research project conducted by Hewlett Packard, it was revealed that men would apply for internal jobs if they thought they met 60% of the requirement, while women would only apply if they met 100% of the criteria. The bizarre need for perfection in the womenfolk was preventing them from even trying.
Dr Lois P Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office has this to say: “ No one will ever take better care of you than yourself. Not your boss, your partner, your parents, or your friends. As well-meaning and supportive as they may be, when it comes right down to it, no one knows better than you what’s right for you.
“It’s a matter of clearing the path to knowing what you do want and don’t want, trusting your instincts, and preparing yourself for life’s challenges.”
Knowing what one wants is certainly a big part of resolving the dilemma of women’s progress in business, as is acquiring the skills for getting it once one knows. A measure of introspection concerning these matters will not go amiss either.
Sisonke Msimang is the executive director of the open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Writing in the Book of South African Women (2011 edition), she recounts how she approached her new position with the grand plan of turning her organisation into a model of gender equity, but soon realised that this was not in fact, what she had been hired to do!
“It became evident quite early on that the gender utopia I thought I might achieve simply wasn’t the most pressing organisational need of the moment. (The organisation) needed a higher degree of accountability.
“This required less of the kinder, gentler woman’s touch approach and more of the hard-nosed tactics often associate with men. It required confronting people, paying close attention to detail . . . and it required me to say no, very often to men who were older and more educated than I am.”
Simply put, the lady learnt to roar!
lThembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw. Follow Thembe on www.twitter/localdrummer

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