If you happen to be female, and you’re already thinking about what New Year’s resolutions you should make (and you probably are), you should realize two things. First, we men won’t start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions until sometime in February. Second, learning to say “no” should be at the top of your resolution list.
That part about learning to say “no” was the theme of a fascinating discussion I had last week with Dr. Jaime Kulaga, a licensed mental health counselor, certified professional coach, and author of the new book, “Type ‘S’uperWoman—Finding the Work-Life Balance: A Self-Searching Book for Women.” The point is, as female IT professionals are very much aware, women take on so many different roles that overload is a way of life. But according to Kulaga, it doesn’t have to be. That’s where learning to say “no” comes in.
I asked Kulaga if women tend to find it more difficult to say “no” than men do. She said they do, and she explained why:
Women are more emotional-based, and really harbor feelings of guilt about things. Typically, when a woman says “no,” there’s fear behind it. Let’s say you ask me to take on a project, and I’m already overloaded at work, I’m already overloaded with family—there’s going to be a fear there that if I say “no” to you, you might not ask me to do another project. I might lose my job because of it. There’s always a fear of loss of something behind saying “no.”
So in the workplace, is there anything men can or should do to lend consideration to the fact that women find it more difficult to say “no” than they do? Kulaga said she wouldn’t put the onus on the guy:
I would say the woman needs to be more confident in herself. She needs to understand that the word “no” has gotten a bad reputation—it’s bad to say “no.” But “no” actually represents self-discipline, and setting boundaries. Women need to understand what “no” can really mean for them, that it can mean a great thing. That’s a better approach than teaching a man something. Women shouldn’t be dependent on that. They should be dependent on their own ability to say “no.”
OK, since women find it more difficult to say “no” than men do, does it follow that women should be more like men in some ways? I felt kind of like a jerk asking the question, being male and all, but I suspected that Kulaga would give it an insightful response. And she did:
Men tend to be very aggressive, so they get what they want through aggression. But if a woman is aggressive, she’s seen as a bitch, or as not being a team player—that’s what it boils down to. So women have to come at it with a different approach—that is, not to use aggression, but to use confidence. You see women like Hillary Clinton, and these powerful women, I understand that they have to be aggressive, but they’re not coming across as bitches and as not being team players. They’re coming across as very confident. They know what they’re talking about, they’re very knowledgeable in what they do, and they use that confidence to appear aggressive. A lot of women struggle with their own confidence and self worth, and a lot of times women ruminate on the same things, thinking, “What could I have done differently? What did I do wrong?” It’s non-stop sabotage. There’s no confidence building. So the more we can bring our confidence to the table, the more we’re like men in showing that aggression, but through confidence.
Conversely, in what ways should men be more like women? (See? I’m not such a jerk after all.) Kulaga was equally insightful:
The nurturing and team-building are things that men could continue to improve on, and women can help with that. Women are really intuitive, so make them the leaders in teams. Men could really hone in on the women’s intuition and being able to relate to other people, and to communicate. Have more of a conversation about what her vision is, as opposed to two words, and it’s over.
I asked Kulaga if women tend to care more than men do about what other people think of them, and if so, why that’s the case. Her response:
I think both men and women care about what people think of them, but women are so much more emotional that they might take it more to heart. Men take feedback as a growth lesson; women sometimes take it as an attack. Women are more emotional about it, so it just seems like we care more. Women are very communicative and verbal, so every minute there’s something wrong. We’re telling you every minute what you could do differently, or how that hurt us. Men tend to suppress that a lot more. I tell women, especially in couples’ counseling, if a man hints at something to you, know that it’s been on his mind for a very long time. So both men and women do care about what other people think of them, but men just have more of a tendency to push it aside and store it, because they’re not as communicative as women are.
Finally—and this was more out of curiosity than anything—I asked Kulaga whether women tend to prefer for their direct supervisor to be a man or another woman, or whether it matters at all. She said she couldn’t respond on the basis of any research:
But from my experience, women are more comfortable with women—they’re on their level. There’s much more rapport-building when it’s woman-to-woman—they face the same challenges. They can empathize more with situations that might be outside of the workplace, because we do have two jobs.