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viewpoint

Dames aren’t damsels

| Monday, January 26, 2015

In countless studies, it has been determined that young girls develop communication skills faster and better than boys. In our culture, pre-teen girls are known to speak at unforgiving speeds, throwing in new terms like “selfie” and “tbt” that confound adults but end up in Webster’s Dictionary. In high school, young women are heard on stage, across sports fields and in front of their teachers. In corporate boardrooms and professional settings, however, grown women seem to lose their voices. In their New York Times article “Speaking While Female,” Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant discuss this phenomenon as well as the repercussions faced by women who do speak up: “Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.” This double standard can be seen from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and even in Disney movies.

Most have seen the classic movie musical, “The Little Mermaid,” in which Ariel, the curious and amphibious heroine, trades her voice for legs. Without any means of communication, Ariel shifts from dynamic and defiant to passive and submissive. Her talents, opinions and desires are ignored because she cannot articulate them. Although “The Little Mermaid” was my favorite movie as a child, I would often feel frustrated on Ariel’s behalf. I have always been talkative, so the idea that someone could steal my voice or ignore my words was a nightmare. (Sometimes literally. Is there anything worse than those dreams when you try to call out for help but you cannot get the words out? Nope.) Ursula, the villain, wasn’t out for blood but rather power, and she knew it was as simple as stealing Ariel’s voice — and that scared me. Luckily for my six-year-old self, I didn’t have to be frightened for long. In classic Disney fashion, Ariel gets her voice back and lives happily ever after with the Patrick Dempsey-lookalike, Prince Eric. The real world is a different story.

Women are underrepresented in almost every professional industry, ranging from film to public service and STEM fields. Decisions about women — our identity, our bodies and our capabilities — are made with lasting implications and without our input. Societal and cultural factors lead us to battle our own Ursulas, or forces that consciously or subconsciously silence us. We might have the tendency to sit in the back and nod along, or, like Ariel, to make sacrifices for new worlds that don’t necessarily become happily ever after. We might even think that our own Prince Eric will come if we remain silent. Ultimately, we can get caught in a perfect storm that leaves us displaced and dismissed.

There is still a cost of “speaking while female,” but Sandberg and Grant suggest that women continue to seek leadership positions and to exercise their voices until people get used to it. On campus, we often expect to be heard, and rightfully so. Yet, we can prepare for the future by speaking up more in classes, group meetings and even in clubs. Last semester, I started “Notre Dames,” a club that strives to strengthen the female voice on campus. We host “Talk It Out Tuesdays” (TIOTs), weekly conversations on topics that relate to our dames, ranging from dorm parties and “Ring by Spring,” to street harassment and sexism. TIOTs are meet-ups, in which all Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s students can drop in and discuss for however long they want. While it’s important to talk about these female-focused topics, it’s also crucial to simply talk.

As people, but most especially as women, we must exercise our voice whenever we can. We must be conscious of our voice: its value, its impact and its potential. We each have unique perspectives, dreams, skills and stories that deserve to be heard — for the sake of our community, our world and ourselves. It’s clear that the real world is not always a fairytale, so why even pretend to be damsels in distress? Talk It Out with us, Dames, and we can help each other be heard.

 

Alison Leddy

senior

Cavanaugh Hall

Jan. 25

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Jeanine Sterling

    Excellent thoughts, Allison! We posted about the study at our ND Women Connect LinkedIn page, along with a link to a Fortune article that provides some good tips for women who are dealing with the “manterruptions” dynamic out in the workplace. Keep up the good work with Notre Dames! – Jeanine ’76