I spent days procrastinating before writing the article you’re reading. Writing this article is incredibly difficult for me.
Because it requires me to talk about my own success. It requires me to believe I’m qualified to give career advice. In other words, it requires me to be “unfeminine.”
Growing up, I was trained to smile politely at everyone, to act like they were above me, to assume they were right. To be a girl.
Now, even as a prolific writer with bylines in well-known publications and frequent media interview requests, I often feel like a Girl Scout earning her journalism badge.
And many people treat me like one.
Twitter users who disagree with my words have called me “honey” while “correcting” me. Family members have told me to write about our vacations, making sure I took pictures.
An ex-boyfriend called me “bitchy” for referencing him in an article. Strange men on OKCupid have “educated” me about why feminism is wrong so that I can “use it for my book.”
One acquaintance tried to comfort me after reading an article about my body image issues by telling me I was a “lovely young woman.” Countless men have e-mailed me dick pics because I write about sex. A guy in an elevator once asked upon learning I was a writer, “So is it just sappy, romantic stuff?”
And I have been shamed like you would not believe for negotiating.
Is this all because of my gender? I can’t say how this would play out if I were a man. But try imagining a man in the situations I just described. They sound comical.
The role of gender in these situations didn’t cross my mind for many years, though, because I’d internalized the social norms guiding them – and imposed them on myself.
Breaking free from them is a privilege. Some people literally can’t afford to challenge social norms at work.
Since I have enough money to support myself, I can afford to take more risks than some. And the fact that I’m a white person with an Ivy League education means a lot of people face so many more obstacles than I have.
But while we may have to weigh the benefits of challenging gender norms against the punishment we could face for doing so, it’s important to at least be aware of these norms so we don’t direct them against ourselves.
So, here are some misogynistic “rules” I’ve felt pressured to live by, but benefited from challenging at work.
1. ‘Don’t Ask for Too Much’
When I got my first full-time job offer, the company’s CEO wrote an e-mail to me saying, “Let me know if there’s anything we can do to get you on board.”
I was on the fence about the job, but I thought asking for more money would make me seem greedy or like my heart wasn’t in it. So, I just asked for vague things like “leadership opportunities.”
Sure, this problem’s not exclusive to women. But we do face it disproportionately. An Earnest survey found that 42% of men but only 26% of women negotiated their last job offer (there were no numbers for non-binary folks), and it’s understandable why.
From childcare to favors for friends to career coaching for strangers to low-paying jobs, women are expected to do things out of the goodness of their hearts.
My fear that I’d be penalized for expecting compensation for my work wasn’t coming from nowhere.
A study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that after people read about people who negotiated, they were more likely to dislike the women.
I can believe that – because after I took a night to simply look at my next job contract before accepting the position, the CEO was thinking, “Fuck that, it’s not negotiable,” he later told me at a company party.
And when I asked if someone who offered me a freelance editing job could pay $50 more, she told me she’d rather hire a different editor than “start down the path of negotiating.”
It’s easy to see how women could get deterred from negotiating. But I’m glad I didn’t.
Overall, asking for things – especially things I didn’t feel I deserved – has paid off. Most editors I’ve negotiated with have said yes or no politely. I’ve made thousands more dollars than I would have if I never negotiated.
And negotiation isn’t just about money. I’ve also benefited from asking for assignments, asking for more convenient schedules, and even asking for travel opportunities.
I’m often surprised by what people will say yes to, which means I’m probably still underestimating my worth. A lot of us are.
So, here’s a friendly reminder that you’re not being imposing by making a courteous, no-pressure request. And chances are, your request isn’t one-sided. Since you bring valuable work to the table, people have a lot to gain from accommodating you, and they should recognize that.
2. ‘Don’t Think Too Highly of Yourself’
The other day, someone asked me if I could speak on her radio show for International Women’s Day.
“Sure, thanks for the offer!” I replied without thinking. Just as the window of time for me to press “undo” passed, I regretted it.
Why did I think she was doing me a favor? She reached out to me. It’s not like she was even paying me.
But if I were to think of myself as someone who’s doing someone else a favor by appearing on their radio show, I’d feel arrogant. So, I behaved like I was super grateful for anyone who would consider me an expert on certain topics. Which I am.
Our culture requires that to get leadership roles and media appearances, you need to present yourself as an authority. When we teach women not to act this way, we set them up to get fewer opportunities.
It’s taken me years to learn that nobody appoints you with the title of “expert.” You can claim your own expertise. And many women overestimate what they need to be considered an expert.
Sometimes, I use a site called Help a Reporter Out to find experts to interview for articles. It’s always astounding how many men respond to things they’re not really experts on, starting e-mails with sentences like “I’m not a therapist per se, but…”
One dude whose LinkedIn title is “imagine the endless possibilities” has responded to queries about everything from tantric sex to businesses’ use of Instagram.
It probably works out for some of these people, and they get cited as experts just because they say they are. If people of marginalized a/genders did the same, they might face more skepticism. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.
We’re taught to fear that stating our accomplishments is tacky, but it’s our accomplishments that qualify us to do our jobs. If we keep them a secret, nobody will know we’re qualified.
If we’re women, they may just assume we’re not qualified until told otherwise.
3. ‘Don’t Get Too Consumed with Work’
When I started getting really successful, many friends, family, and acquaintances began telling me things like “slow down!” and “remember, work/life balance is key!”
I felt ashamed of how much I worked and was often secretive about it.
Even back when I was in school and would take classes over the summer, friends would tell me things like, “You need a break!” I wondered why I’d need a break from the very things that energized me.
Finally, one friend (maybe not coincidentally a man) told me, “Oh, I would work 24/7 if I could. I love working.” That seemed like such a taboo thing to say, but after hearing him say that, I realized it was okay for me to feel that way, too.
I love to work. I want to work all the time. I get excited when my boyfriend travels because that means I can spend all night working with no distractions. Sometimes, I secretly hope friends will cancel plans so I can work more.
That’s not workaholism. I know what workaholism is because I’ve been there, too. That’s when you don’t want to work, but feel you have no choice. It’s a compulsion.
Spending a lot of time on work is not a problem in of itself. In fact, it’s sometimes necessary to accomplish your goals. That’s why we hold women back when we make them feel guilty for doing work they want to do.
This problem’s also not exclusive to women, but combine the presumption that women should care more about their love and family lives with people’s general tendency to patronize women by claiming to know what’s best for them, and women and femmes will deal with it disproportionately.
We get told to not work too much as if we’re fragile, to not overcommit as if we need a babysitter to enforce our bedtimes, to get out more so that we’ll find a significant other, to hurry up with that because our biological clocks are ticking.
My career didn’t blow up when I was busy trying to find a boyfriend. It did when I was writing down the thoughts I’d bottled up while pursuing someone else’s version of balance.
Obviously, there’s such thing as spending too much time working, and there are a lot of destructive capitalist ideals that cause us to exceed our limits. But we need to be the ones to decide where those limits are, and letting people decide them for us can take valuable time away from chasing our dreams.
And dreams aside, some people really need to work a lot for financial reasons. Telling them to find more balance doesn’t make sense because it’s not an option for them.
What all these rules basically boil down to is “don’t be too successful.” Asking for things, thinking highly of yourself, and working a lot are terrifying not just in of themselves but also because they could lead us to success.
And by success, I don’t mean making a lot of money or having a job that impresses people. I mean doing things that fulfill you and allow you the lifestyle you want.
We’re taught that if we’re too successful, we’ll be less attractive, be less likable, or hurt someone else’s feelings. (Other people’s feelings are always made out to be our problem.)
But I’m tired of constantly downplaying my success. It lowers my sense of self-worth and probably lowers my worth in others’ eyes.
I’m tired of keeping my income a secret because I supposedly don’t deserve it. I’m tired of saying I’m lucky to be where I am when I know what I did to get here. I’m tired of not asking for more because deep down, I think I’ve already gotten too much.
And I’m tired of trying not to “make this about gender” because I’m scared men will get defensive and not like me.
By “making it” about gender, we’re calling out the ways gender does impact us. By making it about gender, we’re creating a world where our status at work is not about our gender.
Where we’re not punished for defying rules that only hold us back.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss. Read her articles here.