When it comes to work and career advancement, should a woman ever say "no"?
The right answer may depend on where you're standing as you contemplate this question. Two women tackle this highly debatable topic, and both stand on opposing sides.
Suzy Welch is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review, and co-authored the book Winning with her husband, former General Electric CEO Jack Welsh. The author of numerous articles about leadership, creativity, change and organizational behavior, she is also the mother of four children ages 14-19. A contributing editor to O magazine, she recently wrote, "The price of saying 'no' at work."
Emily Stoddard Furrow is in her twenties and lives in Michigan. She left a rewarding job at a communications firm, took a 50% pay cut and returned to work in the family business. She also provides communications consulting to non-profits. She responded to Suzy Welch's commentary with her own thoughts in "There isn't 'yes' and 'no' in your career - there are opportunities, decisions, and shifts."
Why You Should Never Say No
Welch makes the case that saying no has consequences and the most successful women realize this and accept it. From a consulting firm CEO who juggles marriage, family and career:
You know why I never say no?...Because I think about the consequences of someone else saying yes. Someone else gets my piece of the franchise....You know, I miss my teacher conferences, too. I miss school picnics. That is why I am at the top....To get where I am...I have given up so much. My job has inflicted untold brutality on my marriage. Untold brutality on my life. I will not start saying no and take the hit in my career, too. The price I've paid is already high enough.
From an anesthesiologist - also a wife and mother - on the the work/life balance and why she can now say no selectively:
It's a bit of a shell game...I said yes to every request for probably 15 years. I took the hardest cases, worked the worst hours, volunteered on holidays -- I'd do anything to make it into the hospital on those snow days when other doctors couldn't get their cars out of their garages. I stockpiled goodwill as if a nuclear war were coming.....In reality...I paid up front.
That same woman on other women - female doctors - who make work/life balance a goal from day one:
I've seen them a million times....They come in right after their residencies and immediately start trying to negotiate time off. Everyone can't stand them. They get managed right out. You can't say no until you've earned it, unless, of course, you're willing to pay the price of irrelevancy.
Saying No as a Holistic Approach
Many of the women who now run companies and mastered the career ladders...arrived on the professional scene at a time when women could finally attempt to have it all, yet they still had to do it all to make that possible. So it's not surprising they feel they had to say yes to everything - was there really another option?
But I don't think this approach is relevant anymore or healthy. Besides the personal turmoil the "yes" life can create, my generation has seen consequences that undermine the supposed rewards of this approach. We're watching companies crumble, taking the assets and benefits promised to their longstanding employees down with them.
Based on these realities and other factors, I think young women in my generation tend to be more holistic when it comes to decision-making, priority-setting, and to assessing consequences of both. In general, I think young professionals today are too entrepreneurial and open-minded to perceive "yes" and "no" opportunities. There is never truly a "narrowing" of opportunities. There is only a shifting of opportunities until we get to the life we want, and even the understanding of what we want may change over time.
Women have always pondered whether or not to say no. In months and years past, 'no' was seen as the healthy response of a woman trying to reclaim her life and unburden herself of those obligations, commitments, and duties that didn't enhance her personal well-being. But now 'no' is a riskier proposition in a world in which many out-of-work professionals are pounding the pavement looking for an employer to say 'yes.'
'No' Redefined By the Recession
The consequences of saying no is an important point to ponder in this time of economic distress when change - often for the worse - is thrust upon us, forcing us to shift priorities. Although more men are experiencing job loss than men, successful women who put their careers first may find themselves feeling what many men feel - a loss of one's sense of self as defined by the work that we do, the title we hold, the career we've put at the center of our lives.
Those who are still hanging onto jobs are being asked to do more and more to take up the slack left by others already let go. How far can we push ourselves before we sacrifice too much?
I have said no and I have said yes in my life and in my work. Like one of the women Welch interviewed, I've probably said yes with greater frequency as I made my way up the ladder, and am saying no more often now that I'm older, wiser, and more established in my chosen career.
What have your answers been, and have they changed over time? Who do you think has the better handle on what working women face - Welch or Furrow? Or does it really depend on where you are in your life to understand and agree with either view? Do millennials have a healthier approach to work/life balance than their mothers?
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- What's a Millennial? How are They Changing the Workplace?
- Millennials and the Shift in Gender Roles
- Readers Respond: Why Millennials are Different from Previous Generations
- Are You A Millennial? What's Your Take on Work/Life Balance? What Really Matters to You?