Lean In. Boss Not Bossy. Ban Bossy. Girl Boss. These phrases have become part of everyday rhetoric when referring to the role of women in a professional setting. Wherever you may stand on the new buzzwords, we can all agree that we all benefit when the topic of how women act and are treated in the workplace at the forefront of the current cultural landscape. Thank you Beyonce.
It’s exciting to hear mostly positive chatter surrounding the workplace challenges faced by many women. For so long, the expectations of women's professional roles have been relegated to junior, administrative, support positions, despite the fact that women make up almost half of the general workforce in the U.S., and 57% of the professional (and technical) workforce. These days, we are earning more university degrees than men but are still making less than men in the same roles. And while this progress is great for women, no one benefits from outdated gender roles, men included.
One of the things that makes me most sad and frustrated are instances where I see women (myself included occasionally) hesitate, shut down, lean back. It can be in a morning status meeting, a new business pitch, or when its time to ask for a raise or promotion. Having heard countless stories from colleagues and through my own experiences I have realized that changing this behavior comes down to having the confidence to share ideas and asking for what we want.
Speaking Up at Work
Recently, a friend of mine, lets call her A., told me a story about an instance where she completely missed an opportunity to impress leadership at her agency. The director level employees were challenged to find smart, efficient ways to save the company money without affecting operations and service to their client base. After having prepared a smart, straightforward and simple plan that would achieve that goal, A. sat excitedly in the conference room ready to present. Well, it didnt go so well. Others began presenting elaborate ideas that seemed impressive and also actionable. Seeing the positive reaction from colleagues and upper management to other ideas, A. ultimately chose not to put forth her own. Instead she simply offered support to those that had been presented. Why oh why?
I came across a segment on The Today Show from 2012. A study was done by scientists at the Virginia Tech Research Institute examining how men and women operate in the workplace. Essentially, they were trying to understand why women often feel afraid or tongue-tied when in a group setting. According to this research,
women are sometimes adversely affected because of their awareness and sensitivity to body cues, body language and assumed perceptions of others in the group, ultimately making them feel less qualified or smart in that setting and less likely to speak up.
Sadly, this seems to have happened to my friend A. Rather than present her simple but clever idea, A. felt hers was not as impressive.
While I believe our ability to read a room is a major advantage, clearly there are instances where we might be TOO sensitive to it. Its an interesting idea to consider and one that we should all be aware of. Biological handicap or not, we need to get comfortable with the idea that it's okay to have an opinion, its even okay be wrong, or put forth an idea that doesn't end up winning all the votes, but its not okay to stay silent, avoid risk and ultimately, go unheard. If we really think about it, how many of our great ideas have stayed unsaid?
This is just one instance that reflects how passive behavior can impact your performance at work but it happens consistently- you end up doing the work that two people should be doing because you dont want to create waves, you answer your boss’ call at all hours of the night and weekends to seem dedicated (while your male counterpart sleeps in) or you accept a below market retainer to be “competitive”- the list goes on.
Not only in the workplace but in any group setting, women need to feel empowered to speak up. However, its no one’s responsibility but yours to begin shifting the dynamic. When you do that, remember to also encourage and support your female colleagues when they have something to say.
Asking for What You Want
If you understand the value and importance of speaking up, what's next? Asking for more of what you want. We all know the saying “ask and you shall receive.” It is very rare to be given anything without any prior instigation. No one can read your mind so you have to put forth a proposition and ask for the support, promotion or resources to carry out your vision. Of course, asking doesn't necessarily mean your request will be granted. In fact, knowing how and when to approach your colleague, superior or potential mentor is an art. You can increase your changes by applying the principles of negotiation.
Asking for a raise is universally difficult topic- the number one question World News heard from American families in the World News Real Money poll was how to ask for a raise and in May 2013, Citi’s Connect Professional Women’s Network on LinkedIn showed only 1 in 4 professional women o(f the 950 who were surveyed) had asked for a raise in the past year. They found that the mentality was “if they wanted to give me a raise, they would've.” Now that is exactly the sort of thinking we have to negate across the board. Lets say it again- no one can read your mind, so you have to ask.
It is that sort of passive thinking that we need to outgrow. Once we realize, accept and understand our value, the sky is the limit in terms of what we can accomplish. We already know there is an imbalance in pay between men and women who perform the same duties. Lets do our part, lean in and close the gap.
Take N., an extremely smart, diligent, accomplished publicist who was recruited by a top competing agency to spearhead their newly created digital division. While it was initially a pay cut N. saw the incredible opportunity that was presented to her. She spent a year hustling with a capital “H” to bring in new clients, service the ones she had as a team of one, and grow the division into one of the best in the industry. Throughout that tough year of sacrifice both financially and personally, N. had a clear vision for what she wanted to accomplish and when it would be time to sit with the boss to re-evaluate. As soon as Day X came, N. had a meeting on the calendar and was prepared with her talking points- what she accomplished and contributed to the company, her plans for the future of her division, and ultimately plans for what her role would look like i.e. promotion, role/responsibilities and raise. Even if they hadnt granted each of her requests (which they did), N. is such a great example of having a clear career vision, speaking up and asking at the right time.
While asking for a raise is probably the most difficult thing you will do in the workplace, the same principles and exercises you use here can be applied in all aspects of your working style- it really comes down to confidence, preparation and conviction. If you have conviction and the results to back up your request, deliver it in a respectful, confident and professional manner, it's rare to be turned down completely. And, if you are, you may want to consider finding a work environment more supporting of your brilliance!
I'm of course speaking from a female’s perspective in a female-dominated industry. Despite fashion publicists being predominantly female, the big agency CEOs and the executive offices are still mostly men. I believe this is an important conversation to have, and keep having. I want women (and men) to have the courage to speak up, ask for what they deserve and achieve professional success, in public relations and in the workplace as a whole.
We have the education, passion and capabilities to do so much. Make yourself heard. Contribute your genius ideas. Ask for what you want.
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