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Introverts at the office

September 12, 2014

Photo: Writer's desk by Mika Marttila, used with Creative Commons license

When I released the latest episode of the podcast on authenticity at the office I suspected it would resonate – after all, a lot of women are criticized at work, subtly or otherwise, for being too ‘pushy’, ‘abrasive’, or ‘intimidating’. It’s that kind of criticism, and how to handle it, that I covered in the show.

But here’s what I didn’t think about – the flipside of that: when women are criticized for not being pushy or outgoing enough.

Last night I had dinner with a friend. She’s a writer in her mid-thirties, who, like me, did not grow up in the US. Being outwardly excessively confident is not her thing. That said, she is highly intelligent, educated, and friendly. For a few years she was freelance, but last year she got her first permanent US job in a corporate setting.

Initially all seemed well.

“Just be yourself,” said her first (male) boss. Shortly afterwards he was pushed aside. Since then, she’s struggled to fit in. And her new bosses have made her very aware that she doesn’t. They’ve carped at her appearance, starting with her hairstyle. She was told her fringe [bangs] made her appear “unapproachable”. She was informed that the top boss “likes big people” (we’re talking personality here) and asked if she could be “bigger”. She is not only physically tiny, but rather unlikely to be able to effect a complete personality change after 30-something years of being herself. Essentially, her workplace is asking her to morph from introvert to extrovert. Which, to me, seems even harder than curbing a more outgoing, say-it-like-it-is personality to mesh with workplace culture.

Hearing her story reminded me of this wonderful New York Times op-ed by Brazilian writer Vanessa Barbara. In the piece she talks about how all Brazilians are seen as extroverts and how difficult it can be when you don't fit this stereotype, particularly in the workplace.

I’m more of an extrovert myself, but I have introvert tendencies. If you’re a natural introvert, how do you manage at work? Does your personality fit your office's culture or not? All stories and tips are welcome.


When women work for free, part 2

September 9, 2014

"The most important thing is to look at yourself and ask how comfortable are you charging? I work with a lot of women and they’re not comfortable." - Kathy Caprino

 Photo 'Money Queen' by @Doug88888 via Creative Commons license:

A year ago I wrote a post called When Women Work for Free. I did it because a) as a writer I find I’m often expected to write for free, but b) as an entrepreneur, I’ve begun to experience what I think of as ‘expectation creep’. This has been happening more this year, thus the follow-up post.

I’ll occasionally hear from someone who asks if they can meet for coffee or have a phone call to ‘pick my brain’ about whatever it is they want to discuss.  Sometimes I’m asked to speak (for free). Now it’s flattering to be asked, and the request usually comes because someone has heard The Broad Experience or they’ve heard me talking about women and work on the radio. I’m happy and grateful they value the show and the conversations we have there. But I find it awkward to have to explain to my correspondents that I need to be paid for my time. This is how I earn a living. I admit I’ve sometimes felt frustrated and resentful that people don’t seem to get that I can’t give away my time for free.

But maybe I’m wrong to feel that way.

The question of how much of yourself to offer out of generosity is more fraught for women than it is for men. Women are expected to be nice, giving, and helpful, and a lot of us find it tough turning people down. As one recent interviewee with her own business told me, “People expect women to do things for free.”

If you’re in this position, read on.

It was this Forbes post – No, You Can’t Pick My Brain, It Costs Too Much - that got me thinking deeply about this. But is the writer, Adrienne Graham, too ungenerous - what Adam Grant would call a 'taker' rather than a 'giver'? Or is she a sensible guardian of her time and money?

I recently asked a few businesswomen I know how they deal with these requests.

Anne Libby is a management consultant in New York. She is not as strict as the author of the ‘No, You Can’t Pick My Brain’ post. Still, Anne told me she’s given up writing (free) guest posts for various sites (this is something those of us who are ‘building our brands’ are often told is a good thing – it’s meant to bring us more audience). Anne says in her case she’s never got a new client from doing that. But here’s what she does: Friday is usually a day when she does not schedule clients. Instead she uses the day for admin, chasing payments, all the extra stuff sole proprietors have to deal with. So when she gets a ‘can I pick your brain over coffee?’ request she says, ‘Sure – here’s a date three Fridays from now, let’s meet at this coffee shop at this time for half an hour.’ That coffee shop happens to be just blocks from her place. Having the meeting take place on her terms works for her. And she says it weeds out a lot of people who aren’t that serious.

Dorie Clark is a writer, speaker and professor whose most recent book, Reinventing You, has generated a lot of interest (and requests).  She rarely does coffee. She is rigorous about protecting her time and replies to most requests with a polite, ‘Sorry, I’m swamped’ boilerplate response.

“If there's a reason I want to build a relationship with the person (they have something they can offer me or seem interesting), then I'll do it,” she says. “But otherwise I'll refer them to articles I've written, or if I want to be semi-nice, I will tell them I don't have time to meet but can answer a specific question.”

Career coach and Forbes blogger Kathy Caprino has thought about this a lot. As a women’s coach with a large following from all her writing on careers, she is inundated with requests to look over people’s resumes (for free) or meet for coffee to give advice. It used to really piss her off, but one day she realized, look, people have no idea what my business model is: they don’t realize this is how I earn my living. She no longer gets mad but instead uses a boilerplate response and points people to the free resources she does offer on her website, explaining that offering them true service requires knowing much more about them, and that that involves a coaching session.

She agrees there’s a societal expectation for women to give of their time for nothing, but she says we can’t use that as an excuse to mope about this issue.

“The most important thing isn’t to blame society and culture,” Kathy says. “The most important thing is to look at yourself and ask how comfortable are you charging? I work with a lot of women and they’re not comfortable.”

This, she says, is the crux of this issue for many women, myself included. Many of us have set up businesses, such as consulting or coaching, where helping people is part of the deal. Even we are ambivalent about what our value is and what we should charge. Kathy says anyone setting up a service business needs to go through a process to arrive at what they should charge, and be comfortable with it.

“First you have to do exhaustive competitive research,” she says. “What do others charge – what are their packages, services, how do they deliver, what do they deliver? Then look at yourself – what am I bringing, how am I unique? What are the outcomes I can guarantee delivering?” (There are some good tips on how to revamp your attitude to charging in this post of hers from earlier this year.)

Then, she says, “You start setting what those prices are and you start offering that.”

She says the key is to learn to be comfortable with the fact that this is what you are worth.  Sure, be generous to the extent that you want given limits on your time. But don’t forget you are running a business and you need to be paid.

“You’ve got to set the boundaries and live with it, that’s really what it’s about.”

What are your experiences of giving your time? How strongly do you feel about being generous versus being paid? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


Leaving a long-term job takes courage, especially if you're a woman

August 25, 2014

This piece of mine was published on last week and is still being passed around and commented on. Every time I write or broadcast about this topic I get a huge response. The fear of leaving a long-term job, even when it's time to go, is clearly something that resonates with many women. 

As a result of the post, I was asked to be a guest on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on August 27th. You can listen to that segment here.


Making yourself heard

August 12, 2014

The latest episode of The Broad Experience focuses on what must be one of the biggest issues in any office: communication. I studied sociolinguistics at college and loved it. I've never forgotten the thrill of discovering how much more lay beneath our words than meets most people's ears. 

Robin Lakoff

In this show I feature two guests, sociolinguist Robin Lakoff, who put the topic of gender and language on the map 40 years ago, and Barbara Annis, author most recently of the book Gender Intelligence.

Barbara Annis

We look at how men and women use language at work, and why so often the sexes seem to be talking, but not really communicating. Why do men interrupt? Why do some of us women take so long to get to the point? Can we ever hope to understand eachother? 

There's a simple curiosity side to all this, but there's also an important career aspect for women. Since we still (most of us anyway) work in male-dominated environments, we're the ones who usually have to fit into the male paradigm, the male way of doing things. We are judged by a male standard. This Harvard Business Review blog, Women, Find Your Voice, is a great read that will have a lot of you nodding, regardless of your sex. It's about how women, even senior ones, often get drowned out at meetings, or fail to speak up. They bristle at all sorts of perceived slights. The men actually recognize the problem, but they don't understand why the women behave the way they do. The reason? We're each primed to communicate differently (more on that in the show), but most of us have no idea that's the case. So we usually fail to appreciate eachother's communication styles. Instead, they drive a wedge between us and can perpetuate problems for women at work.

One of Barbara Annis's pieces of advice is for women to tweak their style to communicate a little more forcefully, to be more up-front, in order to get men to pay attention. One thing I didn't get to in the show was that this may only work to an extent. An African-American woman I interviewed earlier this year told me about her difficulties communicating at work. She has to cope with her white supervisor's perceptions of who she is (which, she says, include 'intimidating' and 'aggressive'), and feels she often has to think long and hard before she opens her mouth. 

“I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Not all of us have to work that hard to get our points across. 

This is the second in what I hope will be a continuing series of shows on communication. The first was my show on the way men and women use humor at work. I couldn't get to body language in this show, so am saving that for a future episode. Amy Cuddy, on the offchance you're reading, I'd love to talk to you for that one.


Rejecting perfection

August 12, 2014

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave. This isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in." - Rachael Ellison

Breast pump

I’m thinking a lot right now about women's quest for perfection. Often this desire lies uninvestigated within us, unquestioned. It's simply part of who we are. A woman I interviewed yesterday for a future show talked about this: she mentors young women who feel they have to exceed every expectation out there, and they're exhausted. It was the main theme of my last show, Killing the Ideal Woman. And it came up in my conversation with coach Rachael Ellison, who gave such thought provoking insights in The Motherhood Factor.

This is my second blog post springing from my interview with Rachael earlier this summer.

She counsels working parents who want to achieve a saner life than they feel they currently have. 

For starters, she says, it’s hard for women who, until they had kids, had leapt up the career ladder two rungs at a time. Often these women are left reeling after they have a baby, faced with the possibility they may not be able to do everything - at home and at work - the way they'd like. One of her recent clients was a senior leader with a 10-month-old baby at home.

“She was really struggling,” Rachael says. “The hours at her job were very demanding. She was in a setting where she had to come in very early in the morning and leave quite late at night, so she really wasn’t able to spend time with her child.  She basically got to the point in our conversation where she said, ‘You know, I really don’t know if I can do this.'”

They talked through it, but ultimately the woman decided she should try to tackle her home/life problem the way her older female supervisor had. The woman had two children and had handled many major projects. Rachael's client admired her a lot. But what her client didn’t know at the time was that that woman also had a stay-at-home husband.

“There was no transparency,” says Rachael, “So she felt she had to follow the model of the generation prior.”

She felt immense pressure to perform and couldn’t let anyone at work see that she was flailing (that is flailing, not failing).

Society has enormous expectations for mothers. Essentially it wants us to be mothers above all else, no matter how much lip service it gives to our careers. That pressure to be supermom came up a few years ago when Rachael was running a new mothers group. One of the women in the group had been reporting back about her sessions with a lactation consultant.

This lactation consultant had the new (working) mom in quite a state. She informed her that if she pumped milk at 4p.m. on a given day at her office, her baby had to drink that milk at exactly 4p.m. the following day, or another day of the week. The lowdown: the milk that came out of her body at 4p.m. must be drunk at that exact same time for her baby to get the most benefit.

Talk about pressure.

“It is this horrible precedent, that this is what a good mother does,” says Rachael. “It’s so hard for mothers to pump at all at work. I’ve heard stories of mothers sitting up against a glass window, basically pumping in an open space. So people face a lot of challenges when pumping, and to be told you have to have your milk time correspond, it's just this impossible standard.”

In the end, the woman announced that timing her milk production and baby feeding to the same hour of the day was too hard. She stopped trying to achieve that particular feat. She resisted the consultant's advice.

We’re meant to be perfect mothers, perfect wives, and perfect workers. Few of us can possibly meet all those standards, but we still try, because the messages coming at us from the media, politicians, our families and other women tell us that's what we're supposed to be.

Finally, Rachael told me, part of her job is to let people know their everyday attempts to make it all work are echoed in others' lives.

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave – this isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in. This is an uphill battle.”

You can read my last post with Rachael, on workplace flexibility, here.