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May 17, 2009

The asset versus the ass-ette: Asking, through cultural, gender and disciplinary filters

May 17. Day 321.

A woman got a job as an accountant, fresh out of college, and worked her butt off. She spent weekends at the office, volunteered for every conceivable committee and never said no to overtime. She used almost none of her vacation time, and routinely wowed her supervisors with her results -- and dedication. You know how the story ends: Seven years later, after being passed over for yet another promotion, she asked her boss, yet again, why. He gave her another empty excuse, and then fired her six months later.

This sounds like a case study, but it's a real story, about the sister of an acquaintance. A woman who never asked, and (just as crucially) never said no when asked.

I heard this story at a meeting tonight, and it's been on my mind ever since.

Every month or so, I get together with a group of women to talk about a book, see a movie, have dinner and/or try to infuse a bit of art, culture and ideas into our lives. It's very low key.

One thing I love about these meetings is that everyone comes from somewhere different. We have a bunch of Italians, and the rest are from Colombia, Japan, France, Spain, England. They come and go, and it's always a mix. So it's fun to get perspectives from people shaped by different contexts.

Also interesting, for me at least, is that they're mostly in the sciences -- chemists, biologists, cancer researchers and the like. (How did I stumble upon them? Years ago, I ran into the group's founders at a bar. We stayed in touch, when when I moved back they added me to their email list.)

Today, the book was Women Don't Ask, which inspired this blog and which I had recommended to the group. I was quite curious to see how asking plays out in male dominated fields like the hard sciences, and to what degree a confident woman's label as assertive/aggressive is culturally determined.

For most of the meeting, I sat back and asked questions. And here's what I discovered. In no particular order. (Note: I'm paraphrasing what they told me -- these aren't my statements. By the way, I've changed all relevant info so no one is recognizable.)

Asking is not just difficult for women.
It's especially difficult for foreigners. (I don't know about foreign men, since they weren't at our talk. But I imagine the same challenges apply to them.) For someone not raised in America, who lives in America, asking is hard for two reasons. First, because in some countries, particularly where machismo reigns, the idea of a woman (or any employee) asking is inconceivable. So the asker needs to get over that "training" and start from scratch at age 35. Or whenever she gets to the US. Many, alas, never do get over it.

Second are the preconceptions of Americans (i.e. their supervisors and peers) about certain groups. Stereotypes, basically. So if an Italian or a Mexican asks for a day off to see her family, she might be labeled as lazy or seeking favors. If a Chinese asks for a better computer monitor, she's seen as a workaholic. Etc. That adds a whole other barrier to asking and obtaining.

Asking at work is a lot harder than away from work. This is a no brainer for anyone reading this blog from the workplace. As for me, I have little experiences with this, since I'm a grad student with a sporadic part time job. But the consensus seemed to be if you have a touchy or intolerant or tightwad boss, you do have something to lose by asking (which goes against my perhaps naive (?) mantra - you have nothing to lose!). See the next item for details.

Asking at work reflects on you. If you ask your boss or coworkers for help, access, time or money, and do so with an eye on the greater good or bottom line (even if that end result means respecting yourself!) you'll probably look like an asset. But if you ask for something inane, you'll look like an ass-ette. One told the story of two men from her office who were actually FIRED only for asking for better kitchen at work. (Allegedly. I feel there has to be more to that story, but she said the fact that they asked for something so irrelevant angered the boss.) Even for less drastic situations, there are consequences of asking for the wrong thing -- you look like you miss the point, or you're self-centered, or out of touch. Either way, yikes.

Asking really can turn around your life. One woman told us she's at the top of her pay bracket. She started working six years ago, earning around $30,000. She now makes around $80,000. No promotion. No new responsibilities. Simply, did a great job, added those years of experience, and made several lateral moves with pay boosts. At her last negotiation, the company offered her a sliver more than her current salary. She asked for $11,000 more, saying she knows she's worth that. they came down to $80,000 -- her target. For a different job, she prepared a spreadsheet showing how much her old job offered -- full package, benefits, etc -- and showed that the higher salary but smaller benefits weren't a good offer. They gave her a $7,000 signing bonus. The spreadsheet took her 15 minutes.

She counters that she is viewed as the office bitch, but she doesn't mind as long as they respect her. And show it in her paycheck every two weeks. Cha-ching.

Sometimes it's better to tell, rather than ask. One woman said she assumes certain things will be accorded to her, and she doesn't even ask. How does that saying go? Act first, get permission later? In her case, she did nothing extravagant: simply expected her new boss would give her as much vacation as her old one did. If she had asked, maybe the boss would have thought twice, or acted like it's a favor or perk, rather than standard operating procedure. (In her science field, it's the boss and not the institution that determines vacation time.)

Be one of the guys. Interestingly, the two women who do lots of asking grew up surrounded by guys. Their dads taught them to climb trees, their moms encouraged them to be engineers. At work, they say they forget they're "women" and think they're "professionals" -- talking back, being assertive and loud, contradicting people like any of the guys do.

There's one big string attached to asking. In return for getting these things -- ample vacation, generous raises -- those in the group who asked said they must be super performers. I wonder if expectations are higher for women who ask, compared to men who do. What do you think?

Some who don't have much practice wanted to know how to start asking. I gave them three tips:

1. Start with things you don't care about, which you'll probably get. Just to get some practice forming those words. Could I? Could you? Please? Please don't? etc. Major confidence booster!
2. Ask for some stuff you'll probably not get, just to see how fun and easy it is to get rejected.
3. Figure out what you need or want, before asking. It helps you formulate your question and be convincing when you utter it. Also helps with being an asset rather than the alternative, and helps with negotiation, should that dialogue kick in.

Another question was whether women should use their feminine side to get what they want. What are the costs and benefits of appearing either sweet/nice, or flirty/seductive, in the work place? Does it depend on the industry, or are the same behaviors always cool or uncool no matter what? (I'm not talking Vegas showgirl, but, say any job that doesn't involve nudity.)

Gained: A reminder that women do ask -- but not all of them. Good luck to anyone out there, man or woman, US born or from a distant land, wherever you are today. Good luck with asking more, better, higher, deeper.

Question back at you: What do you think? What would you add to this list of issues? What do you think about the "feminine wiles" question? Are you a woman in the sciences or male dominated field? Are you a man surrounded by women? Or a man who doesn't ask? Are you an immigrant or visitor, finding it hard to ask as a foreigner? What's your experience? What about in Canada, which has a lot in common with the U.S. (in terms of work ethic, I suspect) but is also more aligned with Europe in many respects? I'd love to hear from all of you!!!
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