It's OK to Say ‘No,’ Even If You're a Woman

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Mar 31, 2020

Mar 31, 2020 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

A variety of outlets, from The Wall Street Journal to the Harvard Business Review, reported on a 2018 study of “office housework” and how women—particularly women of color—bear a heavier burden of this work. The study, conducted by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, described office housework as “administrative work that keeps things moving forward, like taking notes or finding a time everyone can meet.” This kind of work is “far less likely to result in a promotion.”

Women are already more likely to do the labor required at home and fulfill the caretaking responsibilities. We're trained to sacrifice our happiness for others, to pick up the slack, and to set aside our dreams and needs so that others can fulfill their dreams, have their needs met and get what they want.

It's not a surprise that these expectations bleed over into other aspects of women's lives, including work. Being a woman in the workplace often means you will be bombarded with not‐so‐subtle expectations to do work outside of your job description: provide snacks, refill the coffeemaker, take notes in meetings, fix the copier and other tasks that others (men) are also capable of doing but won't do.

We may want to say “no,” but sometimes saying “no” to expectations we've been living with for years—or our entire lives—can be terrifying. What will happen if we push back?

The Power of Saying ‘No’

Author Karen Karbo has long written about trailblazing women. For her “Kick‐Ass Women” series, she wrote books about Julia Child, Coco Chanel, Katherine Hepburn and Georgia O’Keeffe, looking at ways these women can inspire us to live more authentic lives.

With her latest book, Yeah, No, Not Happening (HarperCollins, 2020), Karbo wrote a manifesto for women to say “no”—in all aspects of their lives—starting with the personal and moving outward from there.

Karbo notes, “I've written this book to urge you to join me in the radical act of swearing off the endless quest for self‐improvement.” But she defines self‐improvement broadly: yes, she includes dieting and beauty fads, but really she's taking on “capitalist consumer culture” that encourages all of us (women) to see ourselves as failures in need of constant improvement. She says she's done viewing herself as a “permanent fixer‐upper” and encourages readers to similarly change their opinions of themselves.

In other words, Karbo asks: What happens if we start saying “no” to the idea that we have to do more in order to be good enough?

Enter Workplace Housekeeping

Karbo takes on impossible workplace expectations in Chapter 9, “Why Yes, and ….” She writes, “What happens after you stop devoting so much time to self‐improvement…?” She tells the story of Stanford Professor Emerita Dr. Patricia Ryan Madson, who seemed to do everything right—until she was denied tenure because she “lacked intellectual distinction.” She was an excellent teacher and, as Karbo puts it, “was the best utility player in the department.” Madson looked at her career and realized she was so busy doing what she thought she ought to do that she “never heeded an impulse that might have led to an exciting discovery.” She did, in fact, lack intellectual distinction because she was on too many committees to give herself space to think.

Karbo addresses the fear that drives women to say “yes” to too many things at work: What will happen if I decline to take notes during the meeting, or don't agree to make the birthday cakes? Karbo writes, regarding running ourselves ragged at work, that “deciding to stop being all things to all people all the time isn't always the personal calamity we imagine it might be.”

In fact, we might just do better in the workplace if we prioritize ourselves instead of others’ happiness. But, she warns, “I'm not going to lie to you. It's a little dangerous to live a life in which you do what you want to do, behave in a way that feels authentic, pay attention to things you find of interest and direct your passions in any way you see fit.”

Although Karbo doesn't describe what those dangers might be, we can imagine them. Say you're a staff member at a university and you want to attend a training workshop—one for faculty only, though. The training is in your area of interest. You hold the same terminal degree as the faculty who would attend. But as a staff member, unspoken rules on your campus might bar you from attending. What do you do? Stay away? Put in a polite request to attend and accept the “no” if it is given? What if you don't want to accept that “no”? What then?

It's Not the Same Boat

Not everyone is in the same position to direct their passions the way they see fit, and Karbo is careful to acknowledge the privilege of her position: “I come from a place of considerable privilege. I am a cisgender, heteronormative white middle‐aged woman with a college degree, and this is the only experience I can address with any authority.”

Because we're not all in the same boat when it comes to deciding what we can say “no” to, especially at work, we have to assess risks differently. Perhaps, however, that level of risk shouldn't be assessed based on the metric that we, as women, aren't good enough.

As Karbo writes, “All women living in a capitalist consumer culture are subjected to the message that they're not good enough.” And it's this fear that we aren't good enough that drives us to say “yes” to too many things that we don't want to do because we tend to find ourselves lacking. The same fear drives us to accept a “no” when perhaps we shouldn't.

No Regrets

Karbo ends her book pointing to author Bronnie Ware's 2009 blog post, “The Regrets of the Dying.” Ware worked in palliative care for many years, and she collected stories and shared them in this piece. Reader: These five notes are a gut punch.

The first is this: “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” This particular regret is the one that can haunt you when you're facing the things you feel like you should say “yes” to in order to prove that you're good enough, or productive enough, or worth keeping around as an employee or friend.

Karbo writes, “We think we're taking ourselves and our life seriously when we're immersed in optimizing every moment of every day.” But this kind of thinking is wrong. Karbo shows us that we should strive for imperfection instead. Reject the cult of productivity. De‐optimize ourselves. And ensure we're living for ourselves and for those we love.