About Last Night: Women need to make assertiveness and self-respect the norm

Q: My mum and I have always stood up for ourselves. Mum will not hesitate to object if someone skips a queue. I will speak up if there is an issue with my meal. We don't go about looking for problems, or being rude to people, but the initial response from others is usually, "Oh no, don't make a fuss!" Surely being comfortable about standing up for yourself is a skill all women need so that they can react appropriately to prejudice, inappropriate touch, and injustice?

A: I agree. If we want tomorrow's women to be confident, decisive, and able to ask for what they want, we need to teach them how to be assertive. We must stop rewarding little girls for being biddable, and self-effacing. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, so, squeak up, girls!

Being assertive takes practice.Credit:actian.warden

It goes without saying that patriarchal and misogynist cultures in work, sport, and politics must change, and boys need to be educated, validated, and supported when they make these changes.

Women need to be encouraged to challenge and reject the patriarchal messages that they have internalised. Chief among these unhelpful instincts is the "rabbit in the spotlight" reaction to a perceived threat, the belief that if you make yourself very small, stay still, and attempt to detach from an unpleasant situation, it will go away. Rabbits get shot.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil, so, squeak up, girls!

It is important to differentiate between assertiveness and aggression. Being assertive is a constructive way to handle difficult people, achieve your goals, and solve problems. It differs from aggression because it involves a constructive and polite attitude. Aggression involves speaking rashly, insulting people, and not paying attention to the other's point of view.

Aggression, both active and passive, is what comes after freezing. The cornered creature has to get extremely frightened and angry in order to fight back, but by that time emotion has taken over, often on both sides, and what transpires does little to defuse or resolve the conflict, or promote clear communication about the underlying situation.

Many of the sexual harassment cases that have been in the news lately have involved competent, professional, well-educated women, who say things like: "He rubbed my back/kissed me/touched my breast … and I just froze. Afterwards I was very distressed/had to go and see mum and dad/hoarded it as a long-term trauma, but did nothing about it".

This mystifies many people.

I am not victim blaming here. Historically, women have been at an enormous disadvantage. Usually, there was a power imbalance. Systems have not been strong enough to allow complaints, while protecting the complainant. Privacy and anonymity were not protected, and gossip further damaged the victim, especially with the rise of social media. It is scary to be the pioneer of change.

Some people recommend self-defence training for girls to build confidence in their ability to protect themselves from violence. This is a great idea, but we need to be careful not to fill their minds with fear, or cause them to expect to be victimised.

Becoming comfortable about being assertive takes practice. This is why women need to be encouraged to speak up in a variety of situations, so that it becomes second nature.

When a problem arises, take a deep breath, and pause a moment to gather your thoughts, and calm your emotions. Try to achieve a lightness of touch, smile, or use disarming humour in your initial response, and use "I" statements when you speak, such as: "I feel uncomfortable when you touch me."

In most cases, that will be enough, especially if there are witnesses. You will have made your point without the person losing face. If they persist, firmly warn them that you are prepared to make a complaint.

The fear that prevents many women from asserting their wishes is that they will lose their job, fail to get promoted, or become the subject of spiteful gossip. These are reasonable fears, but doing nothing will not protect you. As we have seen in recent, well-publicised cases, victims have lived with pain and anger for decades.

It will take time to solve these issues, but assertiveness, and self-respect can become the norm.

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