Growing up, I could never master the art of “jumping in” between two jump ropes when playing Double Dutch. In Double Dutch, two ropes are being turned inwards, one behind the other. While I knew how to jump solo, I struggled to jump with two ropes out of fear of being tangled or struck by the rope when attempting to “jump in.” Ultimately, I found my best skill was to be one of the people turning the ropes.
These days, I'm the chief program officer for IGNITE, a national young women's political leadership organization. Part of our work includes supporting our youngest generations in finding and confidently using their voice, whether in work meetings, the classroom, or at city council meetings. I have met so many young women and girls who are brilliant and wise beyond their years, including the amazing women on my team, yet I continue to see too many of them struggle to claim their space and speak up.
I've found myself using Double Dutch as a metaphor for timing when to speak up in meetings as I've mentored my team. There are many reasons why young women struggle to speak up. Some may feel like they don’t quite fit in or belong. While others may encounter situations where someone dominates and takes over the space. In that context, it's easier to overlook an introvert. Then there’s imposter syndrome. Double Dutch fear of speaking is a combination of all these and something a little extra. These factors impact confidence in speaking up.
Many women professionals struggle with Double Dutch fear, including myself. A while back, I attended a board retreat with my colleagues and board members. It was my first time meeting the board in person, my second time meeting them altogether. After reporting on my department's progress, the board members began asking questions. At the time, I was six months into my role, and although I knew the answers to the questions being asked, I allowed one of my colleagues to speak up ahead of me. I remember sitting there saying to myself, “Tanna, these people don’t know you, and they know nothing about how you run your department except for the numbers on paper. This is not the time for you to shrink; this is the time for you to jump in.” When the next question came, I jumped in and started answering.
I tend to be an introvert, but it is something I have had to overcome when I am "on the clock." I learned that my voice matters just as much as the other person. I have also embraced holding the ropes or rather being a “behind the scenes” person. However, I consistently remind myself that working behind the scenes does not diminish the value of my voice or the importance of what I have to say in comparison to those in the spotlight. There is a nuance that I share with my team and the young women we work with at IGNITE.
We can’t ignore the significant influence that race, socioeconomics, and gender play on who feels comfortable speaking up. I’ve learned that as a Black woman, it's important to be assertive even when knowing that Black women tend to be perceived as “bossy” when others are seen as assertive. Double Dutch fear is also more pronounced for women of color. I actually think women of color have a third rope to navigate. There’s racial bias at play. We have that voice in our head at times saying, "You don’t want to overstep or appear bossy if you insert yourself into this discussion." It’s the tension of balancing leadership expectations with societal perceptions that can leave you with a sense of caution and even defeat. I tell young women of color that it is best to speak up anyway. Only the people speaking up are being heard.
It is not always up to other people to carve out the space for you to speak up. It should happen in workplaces, but the reality is, it tends not to. We have spoken about encouraging people to step back if they tend to dominate. We speak less about how important it is to step up if you tend to shrink into the background.
I’ve learned to trust myself to jump in when my gut tells me it’s right. That is how I have overcome Double Dutch fear. But before taking the leap, I still tell myself, “you can’t shrink now.” You can’t hold yourself back because of fear. Yes, it will take practice and require you to be assertive at times. However, it will develop your resilience and push you to show up in the fullest way. It will stretch your leadership potential. And in time, you will realize that your authentic voice superseded the right timing.