These are the messages that women who aspire to leadership positions are getting from everywhere these days. We’re being told that we have to be willing to take more chances, to set our fears aside, and to dive into the fray more often. To say, why not? Why can’t I do that? Of course I can do it! Yes!
There’s a recent line of thinking that women have realized they can’t have it all, and they’re choosing to stay in lower levels of responsibility. That the reason women hold less than 5% of the CEO titles at Fortune 500 companies is because they are stepping away from professional opportunities, whether to raise their families or just to have a more balanced life. Hence the advice to accept any opportunity that comes along.
But is this really the message women need to hear? I’m not convinced. Ask any woman in a position of power how she got there and she’s likely to tell you that she did it by doing whatever she was asked, whatever it took to make herself stand out, to rise above the men around her. And when you ask her to look more closely, she’s also likely to say that what she had to do was far more than the men around her who hold positions similar to hers.
That is the reality that I’ve seen too. Women – especially women of color – have to do more, and they have to do it all twice as well as a man in order to be acknowledged as skillful, talented, smart, and promotable.
I got into the corporate world entirely by accident, since I’m a social worker who has no business working on Wall Street. But when a little agency I started working for many years ago began to expand across the country my job expanded right along with it. Over a period of ten years I held at least a half dozen different titles as I was promoted to new levels of responsibility. This was considered success, and it looks great on my resume today. The problem was that as I gained new responsibilities it was also expected that I keep the old ones. So my job got bigger and bigger even as the rest of my life got smaller.
Maybe this is why women walk away from it all. I know it’s why I did.
And if this is true, then the issue is not one of saying yes but of saying no. How many times have you heard that if you want to get something done, ask a busy woman? And why? Because we all say yes! And then we kick butt to make sure the job gets done well since there is still that do-it-better-than-the-boys-thing happening. See the trap?
When people ask me how it is that I changed my life so radically over the last few years, the best answer I can give them is that I learned that the word “No” is a complete sentence. I learned to say no. Without explanation or justification. Just no.
Men do this all the time, have you noticed? They may offer an option, like “No, why don’t you ask _________ (fill in the blank with a name and it will usually be a woman’s!) to handle that?” But most often they just refuse and move on with whatever it is they were doing already.
Every time you say yes to one thing you have to say no to something else. Since there is a finite number of hours in a day it really is true that we can’t do it all.
By saying no a lot more often you get to say yes to what you really want to do, to do what you’re best at doing, and to create the life you want to live rather than the one everyone else thinks you should.