Dr Nomvuselo Songelwa, Executive and Life Coach and founder of SkofNom
Colleagues whispering behind your back. An eye-roll when you cite your qualifications. A derogatory remark about an idea you expressed during a meeting.
All these seemingly ‘small’ transgressions form part of a rarely discussed and often hidden phenomenon women experience in the workplace: “socio-corporate silencing.” The long-term impacts of silencing are far-reaching and affect both the victim and their families. Victims report losing their self-esteem, identity and ability to function.
I experienced this injustice myself as CEO of a company I started from scratch, a public-private initiative by the government and private sector of the Travel & Tourism industry. Unfortunately, what was to be the legacy and the epitome of my career was short-lived after a deliberate silencing and unceremonious ‘push’ by those at the organisation’s helm.
Of course, I’m grateful to those men who genuinely afforded me a seat at the table throughout my career. However, I can’t keep track of the number of times I was a victim of ‘mandozing’, ‘mansplaining’ and ‘hepeating’ in the boardroom. And unfortunately, my case is not an isolated one. Many women globally report being prevented from speaking through the oppressive acts or omissions of others.
Research from Yale indicates that women often decide to stay quiet for fear of backlash, labelling and stigmatisation. The Yale study focused on two professional groups: senators and chief executives. It showed that top male executives who spoke more than their peers received 10 percent higher competency ratings from colleagues. However, female executives who spoke more than their peers were rated (by both genders) as 14 percent less competent.
Why don’t intelligent and articulate people – men and women – speak up against this form of abuse?
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Working with victims, my advice is to speak out and reclaim who you are. Your actions must speak louder than words. Don’t be tempted to change who you are. Instead, move forward with clarity on the legacy you want to leave. And above all, find a support system and learn from the experiences of others. You are allowed to be vulnerable and show your emotions – even in the boardroom. Remember that you need to lead yourself first because your power comes from within.
As in any form of abuse, it is critical to understand that the problem lies with the silencers, not those being silenced. Victims should remember that when they are silenced, it is because of their success, not their failure. The silencer is threatened by you stepping up into the limelight. Understanding the power play and frustrations of the abusers is the first step towards regaining your voice and being heard.