Contributed by Poppy Reece
The theme for International Women’s Day this year was ‘Choose to Challenge’. I was really moved by the Women’s Network’s panel event on this topic, where we heard from fellow colleagues alongside some of our executive directors. They all had their own inspiring stories of being a woman at ECC and of times when they had challenged, both in their personal and professional lives.
It was good to feel part of a collective, and a sense of everyone at the event getting fired up to stand up for themselves and speak out – no mean feat when we couldn’t meet together physically! This event and others through the week got me thinking, when do I choose to challenge, and could I do it more often or with more boldness?
I’ve always been seen as a quiet sort of person (at least to those who don’t know me very well), but while I’m most definitely an introvert, I like to think I will speak up when I have something to say. I've noticed that the occasions where I challenge or 'push back' the strongest tends to be when whatever is being said or proposed goes against my core values. This is usually when things don't sit right with me morally or ethically, both as an individual and as a researcher in my role. When something feels tokenistic. When the reason for doing something doesn't feel genuine or isn't done with integrity. When things are spun to be something they're not. When I can see someone being treated badly. When something feels unjust or when someone is unable to speak up for themselves.
I think it's easier to challenge these instances when you have confidence in your knowledge and expertise too. If I'm absolutely convinced that something is just plain wrong, I will call it out. Even if the person in question is several ranks above me.
But there are many shades of grey, and there are probably many times where something has been said that I don't agree with, but I haven’t spoken out. It probably hadn't sparked a strong enough reaction, or I didn’t feel I could speak out. There might be instances where I've raised an eyebrow or rolled my eyes at something or exchanged a sarcastic comment with another colleague instead of actually challenging or speaking what's on my mind.
It's easier to challenge when you know there are people around you that you can count on to have your back. And when it feels ‘safe’ to do so; when the stakes are not too high or when you feel others will be receptive to what you have to say.
From reflecting on my own behaviour and observing others around me, I’ve noticed that it's harder when you feel outnumbered or that others have all the power. It is also difficult when something is already in motion or you're told that this is ‘the way we’ve always done it’. The times when you don’t feel you will be listened to or you fear the repercussions. I imagine this is even more true for those in minority groups who are up against other forms of bias, where the scales are tipped more the other way.
There are also definitely times where I could be more proactive in challenging. Whether that means challenging sooner, more often or with more confidence. Sometimes in a meeting by the time we’ve run through all the numerous ways of phrasing something in our head, the moment has passed. Rehearsing what you could say so that it sounds professional or ‘diplomatic’ enough, not too emotional, with just enough assertiveness that you don’t sound too critical or ‘bossy’ (a word you will never hear to describe a man…) I’m definitely guilty of that, and I’m trying to get better at just coming out with it, without 'umming' and 'ahing' over how people might respond or what they might think.
Sometimes we just need to remember that we are here because we are good at what we do, and we all have the right to be heard. Think about what you really care about and keep those values in mind when you hear something that doesn’t feel right.
Remember the times that you felt better for having spoken out and find that courage again!
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