“I didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t handle the workload,” Tina told me. “So I worked my tail off and never asked for any support despite the enormity of the role. It nearly killed me, but a year later I got promoted to another role. But here’s the kicker, the first thing the guy who replaced me did was ask for an assistant.” He got one soon after.
Tina’s story is not unique. In fact, you’ve probably met a Tina lookalike yourself. Perhaps you’ve been one. In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg wrote about feeling so insecure about imposing on others in the wake of her husband’s death that she considered starting a People Afraid of Inconveniencing Others support group. She decided against it once she realised none of the members would show up for fear of imposition on each other. Let’s face it, if the author of Lean In was struggling to lean in on friends at a time of intense need, it’s little wonder so many women struggle.
But it’s not just reaching out for help that many women are reticent about. It’s asking for anything. Not all women of course, but many. A recent study found that four out of five women find it ‘extremely difficult’ to express concerns and make clear, concise and straightforward requests.
Of course this behaviour is adaptive in so far as it avoids the backlash women can face when they transgress on ‘nice girls don’t’ ask norms. Many women I know, myself included, were admonished as girls for any behaviour that might be perceived as self-serving. Don’t be pushy or greedy or difficult. Just work hard and do a good job. No one likes a whinger.
It’s true. No one likes a whinger. Yet in our eagerness not to be seen as one, we can conflate making any request for ourselves with being demanding or difficult. That’s not to say we might not be perceived as ‘pushy’ or ‘greedy’ or ‘difficult’ but rather to highlight just how important it is for us to push back on the gendered norms that have too long tilted the deck against us.
How do you do that? You start by replacing the belief that you don’t deserve it with the belief that you do. At the heart of what keeps many women from asking others to help is believing they’re worthy of it. Far too often we women reject ourselves long before anyone else has the chance.
So if any thought remotely resembling “Who am I to ask for that?” has ever rumbled through your head, try flipping it on its head by asking: “Who am I not to ask for that?” Opportunities rarely go to the busiest worker bees, highest IQs or most selfless martyrs. They go to those who advocate for them. The fact that men tend to rate their value higher is not their fault. It just points to the importance being extra vigilant not to allow our gendered social conditioning dictate the value we place on ourselves or how much (or little) we settle for.
We’ve also got to ensure people know what we want – and we what don’t want. Don’t assume people are mind readers who will just know. And if you’re in the baby making phase of life, it pays to get well ahead of the benevolent sexism curve and ensure that people aren’t making assumptions on your behalf. Like that you won’t be interested in roles that will up the ante on your “jugglehood” act.
Likewise, don’t water down your requests to minimise the risk of rejection. Get clear on your ideal outcome, make your case, and ask for support from those who can help make it reality. Not in an entitled way. Not in an aggressive way. Not in a resentful way. But in a direct way that conveys the belief you have in the value you bring. A study of business students at Carnegie Mellon found female students asked for, on average, 30% less than their male peers.
After learning she was being paid less than her (mostly male) peers, my friend Sarah (name changed!), a research professor, summoned her courage to ask her faculty Dean for a pay rise. She laid out what she felt was a compelling case, but he flatly refused her request citing a lack of budget. Afterward Sarah shared that while disappointed by the outcome, the very act of asking had empowered her to start exploring other universities.
Whether word got out or not, Sarah was not sure, but six months later, the Dean called her into his office. Not only was she given the raise she’d asked for, but a very sizeable research grant as well. While he didn’t say as much, she was certain she’d never have gotten either had she never summoned the courage to ask.
Of course it’s not the rejection itself that we fear, it’s the negative meaning we attach to it. So when you don’t land the response you want, don’t over personalise it. Use the feedback from the knock back to improve your odds of success moving forward. Better things lie ahead if for no other reason than you backed yourself.
It’s a general rule of life that getting what you want correlates with asking for it. Sometimes there’s just a delay in between. So ask yourself, what’s causing you to feel frustrated, resentful or “less than” in any way? Don’t complain. Don’t settle. Don’t fester on it. Rather, identify the request that needs making, then back yourself and make it.
Just as we cannot change gender norms by bending to them, we can never get what we really want without daring to ask. If you don’t ask the answer is always no.
Go on, be brave. You’ve got this!
Check our Margie Warrell’s latest books on courage, bravery and achieving outstanding success at Booktopia.