The idea that women need to start saying “no” is not new. Then why are we still not doing it? This article explores the reasons why women say “yes”, the concrete benefits of saying “no”, and strategies to actually start saying “no”.
Author: Jillian Climie
It is not a new idea that women need to start saying “no”. From Oprah’s “The Power of No”, to New York Times articles, to self-help books, it is fairly well known. It also is an underlying guilt of mine – as a people pleaser, I have been a “yes” woman my whole life. As I get older, I have become more aware of the need to change. Working in corporate environments, I felt my feet slip out from under me with the more “yes’s” I said. While it did great things for my career in the short-term, I started to feel like my life was being driven by other people. I knew it was time to get better at saying no. It was time to be a No Woman (as opposed to Jim Carey’s Yes Man). I also knew if I was really going to convince myself to do this, I needed to understand the facts and rationale behind it. I hope sharing this research motivates you to say a few more "no's".
Why Women Say Yes
We are socialized to be likable and care about others' feelings. Women have the hardest time saying no when they think it might impact someone’s feelings or result in them not being liked. We are socialized to believe that we should be agreeable and likable, and this extends to our relationships, hobbies, parenting, and the workplace. Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University, describes it as “this idea that what it means to be a good woman is to subsume your own needs for the sake of others around you”.
We believe saying no could make us look incompetent. In the workplace especially, women face higher standards of performance and harsher judgment for mistakes, so saying no can seem counterintuitive. We want to show we can handle all the tasks, at the same time, and execute them flawlessly. Really, we can’t. No one can.
We are asked to do more. A study published in the American Economic Review (2017) showed that both men and women are 12 percentage points more likely to ask women to do non-promotable tasks (favors) in the workplace than men. This means women need to say no to more things more often which is draining, especially for people who are socialized to be agreeable. Also, both men and women believe that women will be the ones to volunteer for these non-promotable tasks, so the expectations (by all genders) are set against us.
We believe we will be seen as aggressive. Women are held to higher ethical standards, and when exhibiting similar behaviors in the workplace, women are labelled as “bossy” whereas men are seen as leaders. Against this backdrop, saying no can feel daunting. Women feel the pressure to be perceived as nice, so can fear setting boundaries will negatively impact how their colleagues view them.
We were not taught how to say no. Standing up for yourself and setting boundaries, especially with people you care about, is a skill – not a personality trait. It can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. This is not a skill many women were explicitly taught growing up. Instead, women are more likely to avoid conflict, partly due to a lower tolerance for disagreement. This means we may agree to things we do not want to do, just to avoid the discomfort and potential conflict of saying no.
The Benefits of Saying No
Women who say no are respected. It shows you are the driver of your own time. Imagine being in the workplace and seeing a female colleague say no to taking on a project or producing a deliverable in an unrealistic timeline. How would you feel? Likely envious. She knows the value of her time and is not afraid to make it known. Saying no demonstrates that you are confident enough in your own abilities that you do not need to say yes to prove you are contributing.
Women who say no produce better work. Work output and quality diminishes when you have too many competing priorities. Continuously saying yes, whether it is to big projects, small non-promotable tasks, or anything in between, means the quality of your work will eventually suffer. While saying yes may enhance your career in the short-term, it can negatively impact it in the long-term. Time is finite, so each task you say yes to means you are reducing time on something else. Moreover, it can leave you with no time to recharge – which will eventually lead to burnout.
People who say no are top performers. One of the main commonalities that researchers found when studying high performers at top companies was their ability to master selectivity. Morent Hansen, a professor at UCLA Berkley, notes that top performers "carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel. They also knew how to strategically say no, putting the decision back on the person asking how they want to best manage workload”.
It will impact many areas of your life. Saying no in the workplace is important, but it also translates to so many other parts of life. Social expectations can become overwhelming as we juggle competing priorities, so building the skill to set boundaries is essential. Whether it is saying no to that event, or standing up for your value in compensation negotiations, it enables you to build the life you want – instead of allowing your time to be taken advantage of by others.
Others will understand. We spend a lot of time worrying about what others will think of us, but others don't spend much time actually thinking about us. Do what you need to do, and others will understand. Columbia University researchers found that people often feel they are being much more assertive than they really are perceived by others. This means saying no to that event or task is likely not as big of a deal as it might seem in the moment.
How to Say No
Start practicing. As mentioned above, saying no is a skill. Start small and build up. Say no once a day, even if it is to something trivial. Over time, it will get easier.
Think about what you will give up when you say yes. Explicitly think about what the costs are of saying yes. Making that presentation may only take an extra hour, but what will you have to give up in your day to complete it?
Be clear and do not dwell on it. Clarity is important. Studies have found that saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” allows people to remove themselves from unwanted commitments much more easily, as it leaves little room for debate. And once you say no, move on. If you have people around you who care about you, they will respect your boundaries.
Watch your own reactions to determine your limits. Noticing where you feel frustrated or anxious when saying yes can help determine where you need to get better at setting boundaries. Maybe it is in the workplace with a certain colleague, or maybe it is with your spouse or best friend.
Have others hold you accountable. Asking others to hold you accountable to your goals helps you achieve them, and this is no different. For example, a group of female professors in the US formed a club to hold themselves accountable to saying no to the non-promotable tasks they were so often asked to do. Their support of each other led to many more “no’s”. Six years later, they were all in leadership positions, something relatively rare in academia.
If you are in a leadership role, be aware of what you are asking of the women on your team. We all have biases, and asking women to do more non-promotable tasks negatively impacts their careers. Also, supporting your team or colleagues when they say no creates a safe space for people to be honest about their boundaries. Have grace with your colleagues, friends, and families – understand (and appreciate) when they set boundaries with you.
Anecdotally, I have started saying no and being protective of my time. Counterintuitively, I am doing way more things than I have in years – seeing close friends and family, trying pilates, writing articles. I have more energy. Saying no enabled me to focus on the big things I wanted to say yes to that I did not have time to before. Saying no is not an excuse to not take risks or take on challenging opportunities; it actually is a strategy to build the time to do just that.
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