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Asking for It

Vivia Chen

July 22, 2011

Womaninsuit Girlfriends, let's be honest. We complain an awful lot about not being treated fairly. You know, how the guys seem to get what they want: better assignments, better bonuses, and more fame and glory for the same (and sometimes less) work.

We bitch about this constantly--behind closed doors at the office, on e-mail, and over drinks after work. But how often are we speaking up about what we want with the people that count--the head of the department or whoever has real clout? Probably not often enough.

Peggy Klaus, a executive coach, writes in The New York Times that despite "diversity training, mentoring, and sponsorship programs," women "still lag far behind men in reaching senior management," holding only 14.4 percent of the executive positions at Fortune 500 companies. One reason for this, writes Klaus, is that women tend not to make demands:

Whether from fear of being perceived as too aggressive or too selfish, women tend not to be comfortable asking for what they want. And when they do ask, it can be in ineffective ways.

Often, women's speech is peppered with tentative and indirect phrases that scream a lack of confidence, such as, "I’m not really sure, but you could try it this way," or, "Now, I’m not an expert, but . . ." or, "I think this is a good idea--do you?"

One approach, writes Klaus, is to focus on the bottom line. If you're asking to work more days from home, for instance, stress the fact that you will be accessible and that it'll help your efficiency.

In Glasshammer, career coach Ann Daly offers a very helpful four-prong approach to getting your boss's buy-in:

1. Ask, "What's the policy?" Or, "What are the criteria [for advancement, raise, etc.]?" By asking this neutral question in a neutral tone of voice, you send multiple messages without making a direct challenge. First, there should be a policy, or set of criteria. Second, you speak and think in objective business terms. Third, you won't be willing to accept vague, unsubstantiated, arbitrary decisions about your career advancement.

2. Know your worth. Don't assume that your boss is keeping track of your achievements. Sad, but true. Make it a habit: At the end of every quarter, document your accomplishments. . . . Use this exercise as a way to figure out the best metrics for your job, and use these documents to prepare a killer annual report. Be prepared to casually communicate these objective metrics whenever your boss veers into la-la-land.

3. Keep score. Career advancement isn't just about your performance. You are also in competition with the performance of your colleagues. So make sure that you keep a private written record of who gets what raise or promotion based on what track record. If push comes to shove, you'll have a set of objective "comparables" to strengthen your own case for advancement.

4. If you want it, say so. Nature hates a vacuum, and so does your boss. If s/he doesn't know what you want, s/he will make it up. And thus creep in all those regressive fantasies about what women want--or don't want. So speak up! If you want an overseas appointment, say so. If you want a rotation, say so. If you want more responsibilities, say so. If you want your boss's job (eventually), say so.

The bottom line, says Daly, is to take charge of the discussion: "She who sets the terms of the debate usually wins."

 Related post: Stop Apologizing!

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I just found out Friday that a female attorney was given a promotion over me, even though she only has 3 years relevant experience to my 20, and clearly doesn't know what she's doing.

All the women rallied around her. My own female boss held up my work so her boss - who is new and who was the one making the decision - would be under the impression I am unproductive.

Between the overt discrimination such at that, and the discrimination against guys due to pressure for "diversity" in the workplace as well as constant threats by women to file lawsuits, discrimination is far worse against men than women.

Remember to write those memos highlighting successess 2 weeks before bonus time and any other periods of compensation consideration. Then follow up if you don't get what you want. If they pay you more money, the other positives discussed above will follow.

One good thing, outside of work, is that being straightforward tends to scare the jerks away! :-)
DC, I hope you're keeping hard copies at home of the great client feedback, and forwarding it to other higher-ups besides the one who doesn't like you.

The problem with this article like most other articles about women and the legal profession is that it assumes that the percentage of women who get better assignments, bonuses etc. is low because they don't speak out. Maybe a small percentage of women who don't get better assignments, bonuses etc is low because these women don't communicate what they want. But the overall figures probably reflect a different mix of reality: a reality that oftentimes women perform just as well but don't do as well because: a) they become victims of gender based politics that they cannot overcome whether those politics are overt or because they form part of the attitudes of people that are more subtle; and b) that in order to consistently be aggressive enough and pleasant enough as a female to make an impact in addition to doing great work has a cost factor (in terms of time, emotional engagement, ability to realize that all this will get you somewhere but not where you want) that most women consciously or subconsciously at some point decide is not worth it. I mean let's be honest. If you have worked and continue to work in big law--as I do--it's a fact that male lawyers are neither great managers nor great communicators themselves and yet they do well and you in addition to being a great lawyer apparently have to be a superlawyer in order to do well!!! Ladies, is it worth it in the end? Everyone has a different answer as a woman and as long as that is true the percentages will continue as they are and no one's superlawyer's story should convince anyone that that in fact is the standard for all women

Funny how many of the commenters assumed that asking a 'neutral question' in a 'neutral tone of voice' equates to being agressive!!

Last time I asked for a raise, I lost my nice office was down sized to a horrible one with no windows and they hired another attorney. So basically I was punished and I didn't get the raise. I have never had a raise in the 3 years I have been here.

A male attorney was hired with less creditintials, and expereience at more money.

Yeah, you said it.

This article may relate to a certain percentage of women but I think commenter, Julia, has more of a pertinent point. Co-workers/bosses, generally speaking, do not like aggressive women so this advice will not necessarily work. I have often found (and still find) that when I am direct and straightforward in my language, that the most frequent response is that I get insulted in return. One in-house boss was always implying that I was stupid because he was so threatened by me. (I have a lot of faults but being stupid isn't one of them.) My current boss at my fairly new-ish position had been insulting me about "my attitude" and how I'm probably driving the clients away. Then I started making him lots of money and I started forwarding him great, written client feedback. His current comments are muted (for now). Maybe your next article should be about how in 2011 people (both men AND women) are still uncomfortable with aggressive/straightforward women who ask for what they want and how to handle these easily-threatened people's delicate egos.

Funny. On June 28, there was a column in the Careerist stating, "The fact is women have to negotiate for things for themselves that their male colleagues take for granted." http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2011/06/how-to-get-meaningful-feedback.html

So, do men negotiating more aggressively? Or not? Or are women just making up supposed facts to support their cockamamey theories as part of the eternal female bitchfest?

I was not raised to behave like a "typical" woman and had to learn by experience what others would respond to. I found when I was too firm/aggressive/outspoken neither men nor women responded well to it.
Also, I don't want to give the impression I'm sure or know something if I really don't, because it could mislead others. So I'll say something like "I'm not sure but it might be this way" if it's true.
I don't know if women who are in their teens and 20's now are allowed to be more aggressive, but it didn't work for me. I did notice that when men were aggressive they got good responses. Ah, the double standard. :p

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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