Women are judged harshly when we say “no” to requests in the workplace. Here’s a guide on how to do it.
I frequently get requests to have my “brain picked,” or help someone with their writing, editing or speaking. For free.
At first, I thought that perhaps people perceived my self-employed status to mean I had lots of free time. But then I flashed back to my in-office days and realized that I was often asked to help out in ways that weren’t directly related to my job. My male colleagues, by contrast, were rarely asked to do the same.
Research backs up my observation — women are disproportionately asked to do things that don’t advance their careers. These include administrative tasks such as taking notes in a meeting, ordering food for the team or always being available to mentor junior staff members. For self-employed women, this manifests in innocent “I would like to run something by you over coffee” requests — in short, time away from work that does actually pay.
Women also face negative consequences when we turn down these requests. One study found men who helped were rated far more favorably than women when they said yes. But they were also not judged as harshly when they declined to help — when women said no, they were rated 12 percent more negatively than men who said no.
Growing up as a woman in Asia, “no” wasn’t part of my vocabulary for much of my career. But accommodating persistent time-consuming requests not only exhausted me, I also realized that the cost of saying “yes” meant saying “no” to the things I really wanted to do. When I asked other professional women about this conundrum, it turns out that the guilt to please is rampant.
Fortunately, they also had some great advice on how to say no.
Think in numbers. My friend Theo gave me this gem: Set an hourly rate. She’s a successful author, so I initially didn’t think it was relevant to me. But when the asks became unmanageable, being able to respond to “can I pick your brain” requests with my hourly rate truly helped separate the people who value my time from those who take me for granted. In an office setting, reflecting upon what it is exactly that you’re being paid to do can help you navigate menial requests.
Form a support group. I interviewed four female high-profile academics who formed an “I-just-can’t-say-no” club. They would email each other when they were being asked to do office “favors” and help each other form the script of how to say no. They said it helped empower them and also manage the guilt.
Get boss buy-in. “In addition to advocating for yourself, you need to be able to use your boss as a barrier,” another friend, Michele, tells me. “Talk to your boss ahead of time and say, ‘I want to play a leadership role not an admin role in this project and I need you to support me in that.’” Seeing her meteoric career rise has made me think Michele’s onto something.
Practice saying no. “I challenge you to say no to someone once a week or month, whatever you are comfortable with in the future,” my friend Katharine says. “Reason being, once you start, you realize you can focus on what is important.” This helps with point-in-time requests such as taking notes or ordering food.
As for me? Recent motherhood has brought a new perspective to how precious my time is. Every time I say “yes,” I’m spending time away from my newborn, paying for a babysitter and having to carve out more time to do the work I’m actually paid to do.
That’s made saying “no” to requests that won’t advance my career a lot less challenging.