Throughout my youth, I’ve loved to write. When I was just a kid, it made no difference to me that I still struggled with English. From short stories scribbled in tacky notebooks to poems scrawled onto restaurant napkins, writing was a release for my cluttered mind. My words flowed freely without censorship, and I spilled myself onto paper without a second thought.
But things changed drastically in high school when I wrote for the school newspaper. I was far more conscious of my thoughts given that they went from private to public, for all to see and criticize.
Looking back, my self-consciousness is a reflection of a greater problem many women face: a fear of simply speaking up.
Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, the mastermind behind world-renowned novel The Alchemist, once said, “I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.”
I’ve learned that it’s important to speak up and express your thoughts without worry. Numerous psychologists and researchers have evaluated the precise reasons why women don’t speak up. The biggest reason of them all, and the most unsurprising one, is fear. Fear holds so many women back each day. Fear of rejection stops women from negotiating a salary raise. Fear stops women from going after their dream careers. Fear stops women from taking risks, from making progress and from achieving personal success.
A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and Brigham Young University revealed that women find it difficult to speak up in group settings. In fact, the study found that “women speak less than men when a group collaborates to solve a problem … the time that women spoke was significantly less than their proportional representation — amounting to less than 75 percent of the time that men spoke.”
Whether it is verbally or in writing, by shying away from sharing our words, we risk erasing what could have been inspiring female narratives from our history.
For some women, speaking up is so important they’re willing to risk their lives to make a difference.
Sixteen-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai challenged the Taliban, which banned girls from attending school in her homeland, and paid the price for her words. In 2012, on her way home from school, gunmen brutally attacked her, and she slipped into a coma for 10 days.
Despite the high price she paid for voicing her thoughts, Yousafzai maintains the need for others to speak up. She told Voice of America News, “My message to women and girls all around the world is that they should speak up for their rights. Because when you do not speak up our voices are not heard, but if we want to see a bright future then we must speak.”
Though not all of us have stories as moving as Yousafzai’s, we’ve all got something to share with the world.
The Lean In Foundation, a product of Sheryl Sandberg’s vision to empower others, recognizes this very idea — that all women have unique stories that must be told — and curates dozens of female voices on its website. The organization encourages women to share their personal or professional anecdotes of success, failure and everything in between. From the story of Osi Imeokparia, a product management director from the Bay Area with Nigerian roots, to Alice Bentinck, co-founder of a business venture encouraging female programmers, these voices “can inspire, teach and connect us.” In the case of the Lean In Foundation, these voices remind us to continue speaking up.
I came to the United States as an eager 6-year-old child, with patchy English and a quirky accent. The process of finding myself and expressing my thoughts certainly involved painful moments of realization that I had just used the wrong grammar or mispronounced a word. But each day that I push myself to write and to speak my thoughts, I find myself becoming a more confident individual and a better person.
Admittedly, there are still times when I catch myself pausing at the end of my sentences, pushing the delete key to erase letters from my screen, my thoughts vanishing into cyberspace, my voice stifled by my worst enemy — fear. But then, I think of the words of Paulo Coelho or the works of Sheryl Sandberg, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison — I think of women who overcame their fears and told their stories.
Rini Sampath is a sophomore majoring in international relations. Her column, “Leaning In,” runs Mondays.