It was mid-afternoon when I got the email accepting my very first piece for publication. The email indicated they’d be paying me far more than I expected and asked me to make six fairly substantive changes to my piece…by the following morning.
I was so elated, I didn’t consider how long the edits would take or how full my afternoon already was. Instead, I responded enthusiastically, yes of course I will make all the changes right away!
Fast forward to 2am, and I was bleary eyed at my laptop, writing with frenetic urgency. Only then did it occur to me that I could have asked for more time.
Someone in a position of power asked me to do something, and I didn’t realize I didn’t have to do it – or that I could ask to do it differently.
Overriding good student habits and “good-girl conditioning”
In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr writes about how school socializes women to be compliant – to figure out exactly what authority figures want and then meet those expectations. She asks, “Is part of what is contributing to girls’ success in school their ease with rule-following and adapting themselves to the preferences of those around them?”
This is further complicated by what Mohr calls “good-girl conditioning”, how we adapt to the ways women are expected to behave. “Be nice. Be considerate of others. Don’t rock the boat. Be likable.” The other side of this is that when women are perceived to be self-interested or unhelpful, they can experience negative consequences.
I see these patterns of good student habits and “good-girl conditioning” in myself and among my clients all the time. We often focus on being a team player at the expense of our own well-being. Take for example when women get asked about their salary history during the job interview process.
Someone in a position of authority asks them a question, and for many of my clients, it doesn’t occur to them that they don’t have to answer. Even if they know they don’t have to answer, they struggle with how to respond in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t make them seem hard to work with or difficult. (That’s why I provide sample language and role play with them to ensure they feel more comfortable pushing back against an authority figure’s request.)
Even though I teach this stuff, my own good student habits and "good-girl conditioning" joined forces when I found myself in this new situation with my editor. I wanted to get my writing in front of a larger audience, and this was my first opportunity. Like any eager student – think Hermoine Granger or me for my entire academic career – I wanted desperately to please the person in charge.
In the end, the piece came out well. If I had asked for a few more hours to work on it, though, the publication would have gotten a better article, and I would have gotten more sleep.
There are many resources to improve your negotiating skills, say no to projects you don’t want, and ask for what you do. But, becoming aware of your own patterns of behavior and how you were raised to think about authority is the first step in ensuring you recognize these opportunities to ask for what you want and need.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.