Invisible Standards

“We need your voice,” I said in closing a workshop with about a dozen women on a Saturday in early September.  I was making a connection between an exercise we’d done on developing our own voices and the needs of our national economy.  I view the development & expression of women’s voices as fundamental to our country’s long-term economic well-being.   For me it’s an easy and obvious linkage – although I won’t bore you with the details here.  What surprised me in that Saturday moment was the reaction I got.  The attendees were honestly touched.  My comment seemed to elevate our work.  It connected every one of us to something greater.  Our voice work was instantly relevant.  Meaningful.

Vox Grata

Vox Grata

What influences our voices?  Their presence?  Their strength?  What causes us to not dignify what we hear when our voices speak?

I don’t pretend to know ‘the answer’ on this one.  But my work on transition has made me more aware of what might be at play.

Voice is a complex notion that isn’t often discussed explicitly.  That Saturday morning we defined voice as our truth, our soul.   An early interviewee on Novofemina described voice: ” It is an engaging narrative that illustrates the unique value you bring — to the situations you care most deeply about.”

There are influences all around us that serve to amplify or suppress our voice.  In this bucket can be factors like family members; societal expectations; demands on our time; and exhaustion.

Many of you may be saying, ‘what is she talking about?’  Here is the best illustration that I can come up with.  Have you ever heard someone say, “I really love to ____ , but I could never do that.”   I believe this statement is about voice and the factors that influence it.

In researching my book I discovered a whole body of work on culture and a long list of ‘standards’ or ‘norms’ that our culture invisibly creates.  For example, our society has created a standard notion of the working day.  9-5.   I don’t need to tell readers that many jobs don’t need to be conducted during those hours in order to be done effectively.   Yet, when we talk about most jobs we discuss them or our ability to perform them against this intractable standard.

What would happen to our voices if we explored them outside of these invisible standards?

I remember a 1:1 interview that helped me catch a glimpse of the answer to that question.  She had just celebrated her fifth anniversary as an entrepreneur.  She was thrilled and proud of her achievement.   And yet she said, “Being an entrepreneur was never in the cards.”

“As sad it may seem, it was a barrier while my parents were alive, because I think they would have said, ‘well, we sent you to engineering school, why aren’t you an engineer?’  As soon as they died I was like ‘oh, cool,’ I can do what I want now. Not that I was conscious of doing what they wanted me to but suddenly it was like, ‘oh whatever.'”

Invisible standards are all around us.  My work can’t remove them – but it can raise awareness of them.

Maybe that’s all we need to move beyond them.


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