Learning to use our voice and having the courage to speak out is something that many women struggle with.
From the confidence-zapping stories we tell ourselves, to the fear of being criticised by others for saying what we really think, it can often feel safer to stay silent over speaking our truth.
But to both honour ourselves and create change, we need to step into our power and use our voice. So today I want to share with you some powerful words from a woman who is no stranger to speaking out, Tara Moss.
Tara Moss is an author, journalist, TV presenter and an outspoken advocate for the rights of women and children. Since 1999 she has written 11 bestselling books, which have been published in 19 countries and 13 languages. Tara has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2007 and as of 2013 is UNICEF Australia’s National Ambassador for Child Survival. She has spoken at numerous schools on cyber bullying and online child safety, and in July 2015 was announced as the new Norton Family Ambassador on these issues. In 2015 she was also announced as Patron of the Full Stop Foundation for Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, and launched the foundation at Parliament House. In 2015 she received an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children and inspiring others to challenge the status quo.
Tara is a truly inspirational woman and I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview her about her latest book, Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls. Here’s what Tara had to say…
Megan: Why was it important for you to write this book, and why now?
I wrote Speaking Out in direct response to speaking one-on-one with hundreds of women and girls around Australia. What started as a book tour after The Fictional Woman came out became a kind of 18 month speaking and listening tour at university campuses, schools, community halls and more. I spoke on gender, cyber bullying, violence – a lot of topics – and an incredibly large number of people disclosed personal stories to me both in person and online – particularly women and girls.
They told me their struggles and triumphs, their experiences of harassment, abuse and survival. They had specific questions, too – How do you speak out? How do you handle trolls? Critics? Being dismissed or talked over? After hearing the same questions hundreds of times I realized that a tweet or 5 minutes in a signing lineup just wouldn’t cut it. I wanted to write a book for them, and for others with similar questions. In Speaking Out I do my best to answer those questions I was asked and more, and I provide strategies for how to speak out and keep on speaking out without burning out.
The reality is that we do not live in a predominantly feminist or ‘gender equal’ world, and many Australian women are experiencing workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, online abuse or worse, or common forms of casual, everyday sexism. They find themselves dismissed, talked over, ignored or facing backlash for doing the same thing their male colleagues are doing. This is brought home in anecdotes but also studies. I unpick everything from ‘vocal fry’ to ‘RBF’ – resting bitch face – and gender bias studies in the book. (And even gender bias studies about gender bias studies. That’s right, as men don’t experience the kind of gender bias being studied, they are statistically less likely to view the gender bias studies as ‘meritorious’.)
Speaking Out is honest about some of the challenges posed by speaking out and looks at possible responses and coping strategies. By comparing notes, we can help guide each other through what can be challenging life experiences.
Megan: What are the main barriers you see that stop women, particularly at work, from speaking out?
We have come a long way, particularly in terms of women becoming more equal under the law. Fortunately, workplace discrimination is now a crime – but unfortunately women still experience it. Fortunately, sexual harassment is now a crime – but unfortunately women still experience it. Fortunately, the assault of women is now a crime – but unfortunately women still experience it. The list goes on. There is the gender pay gap, the lower superannuation and more. And then there are the many shades of ‘grey’ where there is a blindness to the fact that particular behaviours are actually not acceptable, have crossed the line, but have been normalised and made acceptable.
A lot of women in the workplace are stuck in that uncomfortable place of having to come to terms with the fact that something isn’t right, while no one around them will listen, or accept that something is wrong. Many workplaces have best practice, but sadly, many do not. The barriers are not insurmountable, but they are there, and we see that in the stats about women in leadership positions, on boards, in the corridors of power, or in terms of the public voice, and we certainly see that when we speak face to face to women in this country and listen to them.
Megan: Tell us about the most critical step that enables women to speak out.
We must all acknowledge our unconscious biases, and listen with less bias when women, and others who are marginalized, speak out. A lot of change is possible by just acknowledging unconscious bias – that exhaustively documented but unpleasant reality many would rather ignore – and listening with less bias and acting on what we then learn.
Megan: You have built an incredible platform in recent years around being an ambassador for women and girls. What have been the keys to your success?
I am pleased to be in a position to be heard on some of these issues, but success will be measured by change in the appallingly high levels of violence directed at women online and in the physical world, and change in the low levels of women’s participation in public life. That change will require collective action, just as the changes so far have taken collective action. Fewer than one in every four people we hear from or about in the media is female, worldwide, but that was only 17% in 1995. Change is possible. We have to do it together.
Megan: One of the reasons many women refrain from speaking up, especially on topics around feminism and women’s issues, is because of the trolling and backlash that comes with using their voice. How do you personally deal with this, and what advice do you have for other women who have something to say but not sure they have the courage to say it?
It is important to know that criticism is a natural part of life and speaking out, and to know that a certain amount of the criticism you receive may have nothing to do with you, your argument, or the way you are articulating yourself. Some criticism online (and in the physical world) is neither constructive, nor balanced or intelligent. Some of it is abuse. When I am abused online I take snapshots for evidence, I report it to the social media platform and I ban the abuser. If I am threatened with violence I report the abuser to the police. It is vital to remember that threatening violence online is just as illegal as it is offline. Know your rights and the reporting procedures of any online platform you use.
We can’t leave the internet to the bullies. You deserve to speak out and be heard just as much as the next man. Don’t let bullies silence you. Support others, and make sure you look after yourself.
Megan: How pervasive do you think the issues of misogyny are in Australia, and other countries like the US and Canada?
According to the worldwide UN Women report last year, Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls, women are 27 times more likely to be abused online. I think that gives us a hint as to how big the issue is. Things people won’t often say to someone’s face, particularly with others watching, are the things that people often say online, and that manifests in a lot of violent misogyny, as well as racism. There is a real effort to bully women out of public spaces and offline with violent intimidation. That issue speaks not just to casual sexism, which is more common, but actual, violent hatred of women by some.
Megan: In the book you tell the story of being the keynote speaker at a literary event in a mining town, where your speech was greeted with growing hostility. How as a speaker did you find the confidence to continue delivering that speech with conviction with the negative energy in the room? I am curious as to what was going through your mind throughout that speech.
I have learned with experience that speaking on difficult issues is important, but it means that you don’t always find yourself facing audiences who are smiling the whole time. This is natural. As a speaker it is vital to prepare well and believe in what you have to say. You can’t please every person in every crowd, but your message can matter much more than if you were only aiming to entertain. I’m not an entertainer in that way – that isn’t my job and that wasn’t why they asked me to speak. That particular example was an unusually hostile reception, but talks about gender are challenging to a lot of audiences. I have done such speeches perhaps 300 times in recent years and it is always rewarding. Just because it isn’t always an easy topic, or it doesn’t always result in easy smiles doesn’t mean it isn’t worth talking about.
Interestingly, though no one in the room spoke to me for about an hour after that particular speech, the women present gradually started coming up one by one through the rest of the evening, thanking me for my talk, telling me passionately how much it mattered to them, and explaining that ‘some old blokes don’t get it’. They basically apologized for their husbands. It was rather fascinating, actually. The client was very happy with the speech. She said it was just what was needed. I think I rather agree. It was an unusual experience but a good example of how preparation is key. I just kept going because it was what was needed. I never doubted a word I said, because I had done my prep and my research.
Megan: You write about saying no, which is an issue so many women find challenging. What is the filter through which you choose your speaking and work opportunities?
I go into this in some detail in Speaking Out, because knowing you have the right to say no (and have that respected) can sometimes be as important as knowing you have the right to say yes. It is hard to distill this point, but in essence, if you are asked an overly invasive or personal question, you have the right to refuse to answer. Likewise, if you research a professional opportunity and it doesn’t feel right, or if you are not being offered payment for your professional services, that may be a sign that you should consider saying no.
Megan: You write about self care in the book which is so important. What are your non-negotiables for looking after yourself, and your key tips for other women?
I know myself well enough to have some strategies in place for self-care, like making sure I get enough rest, family time and time out. If I can get a hike in on a regular basis I know I will feel better and I will be stronger. I set goals for myself – like learning to sew, learning to dance – things that are not work related. I find that play and craft with my family bring me a lot of joy, along with all things vintage. Other women will need different strategies. Above and beyond looking after your physical needs, it can be very helpful to think about what activities and hobbies make you smile. Make room for those things in your life, so you can look after your mental wellbeing and stay energized for life’s challenges.
Megan: What influenced your transition from fictional novelist to non-fiction writer and researcher on women’s issues?
You have to write what is inside you, and right now, non-fiction work is driving me. I wanted to write directly about issues I am passionate about, including the experiences of women and girls. In future I will again have fiction stories I am burning to tell, and I would like to imagine a future as both a fiction and non-fiction writer.
Speaking Out: A 21st Century handbook for women and girls, has just been released and is available now where all good books are sold. Learn more about Tara at taramoss.com.