This post is majorly inspired by the brilliant book Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel. I’ve read a lot of self-help books so I can safely say that this is one of those life-changing reads for every working woman who wants to make it big in the real world.
I am such a hardcore feminist it is not normal. What is normal though is people casually expecting you to act a certain way because of your gender. So normal that we’ve accepted it to be right.
In my two and a half years of work life, I’ve already faced several situations that demanded me to react “like a girl.” But with trial and error, I managed to learn how to deal with them and would like to share it with everyone who has just stepped into the professional world.
Being able to identify and tackle situations that expect you to be a certain way may determine how far a woman can go in her career. The problem though is that situations like that are so subtle, it is almost impossible for girls who were raised to be “nice” to easily identify and then overcome them without tearing themselves apart.
Let me try to break it down (although Lois does an infinitely better job at it):
SAYING YES TO EVERYTHING
I got my first job three months after graduation and like any newborn adult, I was mentally unprepared for work and for life. Two months into my job, I realized there were a few people who liked to “delegate” things to give me “an opportunity to learn.” Initially, in my desperation to impress my boss and everyone at work, I said yes to doing a lot of things that were part of other people’s daily tasks, which they were just too lazy to complete. Eventually, I sensed the pattern and started refusing to do things that did not directly impact my work.
People started saying things about me – things like I’m difficult to work with, I’m uncooperative and unhelpful. But I didn’t budge. It’s hard to disappoint people in a setting where you are fighting to impress your boss at every opportunity. Not to mention the feelings of guilt, fear, shame that comes with saying no to someone who mayyy be in a position of authority (but not directly above you).
But you gotta do what you gotta do. If you don’t say no, there may come a time when you’ll be a doormat doing the smaller tasks and being left out of the big things. I’m not saying you should say no to everyone who comes to you asking for help. The trick is to assess the situation before making a decision – whether he/she is your manager, whether you already do a similar task as part of your job and whether that person is known for being lazy. Only then should you decide if you should say yes or no.
NOT MAKING NOISE
The only thought that comforted me in group projects was that the teacher knows who’s doing what and she will grade us accordingly (rightly so). Unfortunately, in this big bad world, no one is responsible for evaluating people’s work on a daily basis. Directors don’t have the time to see what each junior in the team is doing because they’re focusing on the project. As a result, some people get away with doing nothing and others who actually put effort get lost in the success/failure of the project. Then girls like my old self move on to a new project ready to work harder so the director can notice her next time. But there is no next time! It doesn’t happen until you make noise.
And there are a million ways to make noise – some more dramatic than others. Here are a few ways I’ve learned to make noise:
- CCing my immediate manager on everything
- Bringing up the things I am working on at every chance I get (lunch, coffee breaks, drives to the client office)
- Set up meetings (instead of emails or phone calls) with other departments within the company that I need to liaise with on a project
- If anyone comes to me asking for a favor, I respond with a nice little no and add “I am really busy with xyz project, sorry.”
BECOMING FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE
I don’t mean hanging-out-after-work friends – you can make 200 of those. I mean I-want-to-tell-you-my-secret friends. A common mistake that girls make is that they assume work is like college – the bigger the group, the better. But it’s not.
A friend started her first job with the idea that she can make a nice, big group with the women in her department. Some bad experiences came her way and she learned that the differences in people’s backgrounds at work is so stark, it’s not possible to bond with every single person. If you get unlucky and confide in a gossiper, your secret will travel far and wide until it comes back to you from another source.
So girls, try to be on good terms with everybody but do not share more than you need to. Sharing (at work) is not caring.
BECOMING FRIENDS WITH NO ONE
That was definitely me in my first year at work. I didn’t talk to anyone for more than 10 minutes because I’m a socially awkward person with pathetic small talk skills and the fact that I didn’t like anyone. But gradually I gelled with one girl. We were as different as day and night but somehow we found common topics (living with parents, being South Asian, environmental issues, oh and being a girl in a man’s world) that we discussed for hours on slow days. She brought out bits of my real personality, saved me from lonely lunches and became my ultimate office spouse (everyone needs one of those).
Anyway, point was that having a friend at work not only made my work life one hundred times better (no joke) but also drastically changed the way people perceived me (shy, quiet, serious). And that only worked in my favor.
So when you start working, give yourself some time and observe people’s personalities. There is always someone you like best and that is who you can befriend. This way, you are less likely to screw up and more likely to find happiness.
NOT BEING ASSERTIVE
While being firm and confident comes naturally to some girls, others sometimes struggle. But it’s okay – like most things in life, being assertive can also be learned. Girls who are described as “nice” by their family and friends need to be careful about how they represent themselves at work. From my experience, being (selectively) assertive is never wrong. It does cause me a great deal of discomfort in some situations, but it has never harmed me.
For example, once I was asked to change my account/client by senior management because they thought I needed to learn new things. Quite a few people from the team tried to convince me, but I didn’t think it was the right move for my career. After much thought, I said no and explained myself quite clearly. The nice girl in me made the smart woman in me feel really bad for a very long time for saying no, for being so firm, for disappointing someone. But it did turn out to be the right decision in the end. So now I’m happy.
Moral of the story is to be sure about what you want and confidently communicate it when needed. Being quiet never helped anyone so it’s better to say it and say it like you mean it.
So What Do Smart Women Do At Work?
It’s sad that women need to be a certain way at work to make it big, but that’s how it is. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be fake. You just need to be more aware of your environment and react like a smart woman. Most importantly though, you need to remember that you are just as good as everybody else (that’s why you’re hired) and believe that you have the capability to make it big (you do!).
And I’d just like to say: read the book.