fierce

It was International Women’s Day yesterday. I celebrated by spending the day on the sofa feeling crap.

I was back at work for a few hours today and in a meeting filled with church people. This particular committee is the first – and currently only – ‘church’ committee that i’ve been involved with for a number of years. Very little of my work is with church people; while i very much like people from the church individually, en masse it’s a bit of culture shock.

A slight diversion: I discovered recently that a distant, much respected colleague described me to the people in the cafe downstairs as being fierce. The people in the cafe have a particular nickname they call me, which is quite funny and lovely. When they told my colleague about the nickname, he said to them ‘I’d never dare call Cheryl that…’. It took me a few days to discover why they were suddenly treating me differently. There was a slight nervousness or apprehension that hadn’t been there before. I was back to being called ‘Cheryl’. Until my colleague made those comments, they hadn’t known that there might be a reason to be scared of me; that they might need to be careful how they talked with me.

So today, I was in this meeting, and someone was telling an anecdote about a group of women who have been doing a particular task. ‘They’re extraordinarily competent’, this person said; to which another male interrupted, right on cue: ‘They just sound scary!’. He was joking – you can imagine the tone of voice – and the required number of people around the room laughed.

It was inevitable someone would make that particular comment. Someone always does. And if that group of women had heard him saying that within that context, there is a good chance that many of them would have come right back at him. But for some of them, for whom standing up and being visible might be against every instinct, I can guarantee they would begin to worry and wonder about how they were perceived; whether they were too outspoken, or too demanding, or too mean, or whatever. I can guarantee that, because I hear their stories – and I know it myself. We do not know the courage it takes for many women simply to make themselves seen and heard within a community, and how much it takes to fight the instinct, when hearing comments like this, to go back to a corner and sit in its shadows.

I’ve had to fight that instinct over the last few weeks. It’s scary enough doing my job, let alone doing it in public. I’d give anything to do what I do without having to do it ‘out loud’.

I know comments like this aren’t made only about women, but those comments are made much more often about women, and they do terrible damage. And I know many of you will think comments like this should just be brushed off – but actually, they really shouldn’t.

I’ve been in my new position for 2 1/2 months now. The most surprising thing has been the extraordinary number of conversations i’ve had with women I work with, who now feel able – because i’m in the position i’m now in – to tell me their stories of inclusion or exclusion. And so many of the stories are made of small comments that people have made: the throw-away, easy line that makes us question our participation – and that makes other people wary or apprehensive around us. And while we’re an organisation that values women highly, and is absolutely, definitely committed to equality in the workplace, we’re also an organisation that has become very lazy with its language, and unable to remember that if we aren’t deliberately including and welcoming women in all our conversations and actions, we’re actually deliberately excluding them.

I am required to do what I do in my job – to stand up for people, to speak loudly and persistently on behalf of the voices that don’t know they can be heard. That’s a major portion of my position description. I’m going to have to learn to be comfortable with being called ‘fierce’ when I’m actually just doing my job, because i’m going to have to be ‘fierce’ to do my job well. And i’m so grateful for the people who work with me closely, and those who love me, who don’t call me fierce, but instead would much rather just say, ‘Thankyou. You do your job well’.

5 Comments

  1. Great post and one that I can relate to throughout my life.
    I have been reflecting all week on the anger of Jesus turning tables over in the temple and how that sits with people.
    The word fierce can sometimes mean that we need to turn tables over provided that our motives are centred in the right place.
    Blessings on what you do and how you do it !!

  2. Michaela

    Yes, yes, yes.
    So much I could say – but you have already said it far better than I can. Your presence in your position is powerful and important, but not just because you’re a woman – it’s all of who you are and what you bring to the position which creates a space safe enough for women to tell their stories. And it takes someone special like you to care enough to risk being hurt, uncomfortable, misunderstood and ‘fierce’ in order to ensure those without a voice can be heard and ultimatley speak for themselves. You do your job well. Thank you

  3. JoC

    Thanks for this. My post would read ‘intimidating’ and ‘threatening’ – and the outcome would have similar relational issues. Thank you for putting words into my experience.

  4. Talitha

    Thanks for this post Cheryl, it is so hard to feel valid in expressing our voice. I ran a women’s circle at a conference recently, as much as anything just trying to create space for women’s voices and the sharing of women’s ways of knowing – it’s tiring to always go into ‘battle’ on masculine terms. Having an admin background I’m interested in what good processes/systems look like that are inclusive – love to hear any insight you have on that! You have a wonderful capacity for creating space and stroytelling which naturally embodies some of that – it is a sad symptom indeed that we need to scream/shout (be “fierce”) in order to be heard at the table so I send courage and encouragement your way and give thanks for the strength of your vulnerability in this.

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