7 things every woman needs to speak truth to power

Women Working in Aid and Development is honored to have a guest blog written by Jennifer Lentfer. Named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter,” Jennifer Lentfer (@intldogooder) has worked across southern and east Africa over the past decade. Focused on organizational development and learning, she has served with various international organizations and foundations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the US. As the creator of how-matters.org, Lentfer works to place grassroots-driven development initiatives, which can be more genuinely responsive to local needs, at the forefront of international aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise.


Financial mismanagement. Lay-offs of local and international staff. Inappropriate conduct by leadership. Finally, a visit planned from headquarters to see what’s going on. What do you do?

 A superior continues to make passes at you. You find out you’re paid less than someone doing your exact same job. Someone takes undue credit for work you did. Why does this panel have only old, white men?!?

There are times in our aid careers when playing nice is no longer in our best interests. Telling a donor or a boss to go fly a kite is an intimidating experience, but there is a point when we have to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable we may be or how much power someone else has.

And unfortunately the aid world is still a boy’s game. While we’re represented among the workforce in proportional numbers, this is not the case among the leadership. We are going by their rules.

Oh wait, their rules don’t work for us? Guess we have to stand up for ourselves and change those rules. This will not happen by letting power go unchecked or unchallenged, on a personal or a sectoral level.

From my experience, here are seven things that can make these encounters a little less frightening.

 1)     Anger as fuel. Leymah GboweeAs women, we’re often taught to keep the peace. At age #%, I still struggle with expressing anger. I unfortunately know its ability to damage relationships. But I’ve also learned that anger can be a powerful force if I can stay with it and transform it as energy to carry me through a necessary confrontation.

2)    An ever-thickening, yet still permeable skin
. When I first took a course with The Op-Ed Project (highly recommended), they told us that stepping into the public space would require a thick skin. They were certainly right. Due or undue, look at the backlash Sheryl Sandberg has received. When speaking truth to power, you will receive criticism yourself. Some of it will need to bounce right off your exterior. Some of it will be necessary to move you to the next level

 3)    Use of the powerful’s own language and tactics. I struggle with just how much I have to act like the boys game in order to get the access to change the rules. I tend to favor infiltration and influence. But the words of a friend and fellow writer often also ring in my ear, “Sometimes, you also have to also scream and yell to get a seat at the table.”

 4)    Your peeps. Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg might have gotten further if she advised women not only to lean in, but to lean on each other. I tend the tribe as another source of my power. Allies ground me, validate me, are friendly adversaries, help lick my wounds, and share their own tales of speaking truth to power. Invaluable.

5)    A new definition of vulnerability. Powerlessness is only a perception. But I find that if I can acknowledge my own vulnerability, I can find a more secure place from which to advocate. In fact, my vulnerability emboldens me in a way. Courage is fueled by knowing that viewpoints under- or mis-represented in a push-push-muscle-might environment are necessary.

 6)    A back-up plan. Whistleblowers often have to start anew. It’s the price they pay for speaking truth to power. Even if I may have reason to think otherwise, I try to keep in mind that personal risk is often over-estimated. Bureaucracies and organizations benefit from a fear of losing our jobs. But we are not our organizations and it is foolish to equate income with security.

 7)    A touch of bravado. Speaking truth to power often means women are seen as loud-mouthed, cut-throat, self-righteous, hot-tempered, over emotional, unfeminine. A bitch you say? You can be afraid of these labels. I still am at times. But then I take a deep breath, remember to play big, and let it rip anyway. Desiree Adaway says it best, “It’s ok to be the smartest, savviest, most awesome person in the room…and have a vagina.”

Why do I think it’s important for women to speak truth to power? Because half the story is still not fully represented in the discourse. In the same way that we are not only whores or mothers, women working in aid and development are not only saviors or victims.

 So let her rip.


About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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7 Responses to 7 things every woman needs to speak truth to power

  1. arieldansky says:

    Hello Jennifer,

    I very much enjoyed your post, particularly the part about the panel of white men (!!!), as I have sat in front of that panel many a time. I also appreciated the links: I checked out the Op-Ed project, and it looks very cool.
    Thank you for sharing!


  2. Great post Jennifer. I have been reading Beyond the Boys club (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Boys-Club-Strategies-Male-dominated/dp/0956268803) which came recommended from my mentor who is a senior female in the corporate world. I think things are a bit different in the aid world though so it is great to have your perspective on here.

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