Karen Brinkley has a simple message for women professionals: Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.
As the founder of Women Leading Women Australia, Brinkley is in the business of showing women a new way to lead.
“It’s all about getting women making the difference that they’re here to make in a world that perhaps is not designed for us to do that,” she told Women’s Agenda.
Brinkley coaches and mentors women who are in the beginning, middle and end of their career and helps them navigate the complex issues women face in the workplace every day.
One of those issues is the tendency for women to say “yes” to every task thrown their way – from organising the Christmas party, to stepping into an executive role with no pay compensation, no recognition and no credit.
In a Q+A with Women’s Agenda, Brinkley shares what she has learned as a female professional throughout her corporate career, her advice for other women in the workplace and her thoughts on the bigger structural issues at play.
How did Women Leading Women Australia begin?
Very early in my management career – so close to 30 years ago now – I heard Catherine Harris AO speaking in Brisbane, newly appointed as the director of the Affirmative Action Agency. She was a really powerful and passionate speaker about the potential of women in leadership. She said this one thing that has stuck with me all of these years.
“There are two types of women: there’s the one who climbs to the top of the castle and pulls up the ladder behind her, and then there’s the one who makes it to the top and reaches down her hand to pull other women up.”
That really resonated with me, and it shaped my approach to leadership and to other women in the workplace for the rest of my corporate career.
I started in advertising and creative roles, and moved pretty quickly into communication management. Quite often I was in sectors like transport, logistics and agriculture where there were very few women leaders. So I climbed that ladder, and at each level, I saw it as part of my job to support other women.
I left my corporate career two years ago, and I was trying to decide what to do next. When I took the time to look back on the threads of what was most satisfying to me, but also where there was still work to do… it was supporting other women in leadership.
Q: Throughout your career, did you ever struggle to say “no” to taking on extra responsibilities?
I believe that this is a really strong part of every woman’s work history. I struggled to say no to ill-informed requests, unethical requests, unreasonable workloads – at all levels of my career. I have a deeply ingrained “good girl” and I learned that the way to succeed in life as well as in work was to be agreeable, to do as I was asked, to do more than I was asked, to demonstrate my value.
I took this approach all the way through my career and certainly into my leadership roles.
There’s a big fear aspect that underlies women when they’re asked to do something… I’m seeing this particularly amongst clients in the public sector, These are women who are already pushed past what I would expect to be reasonable limits in terms of their responsibilities and their workloads. I’m not even talking yet of the “second shift” responsibilities that many of them carry.
This workload overwhelm is endemic, and we keep seeing the stats on burnout. Depending on which report I read, women are four to six times more likely than men to burn out, and I don’t see workplaces coming up with solutions for this.
Q: How can we break that cycle of the “good girl mentality” for professional women?
It’s complex. There’s a complex set of dynamics driving that behaviour… We need to unpack the behaviour. Saying “no” can lead to a whole heap of judgements that women are very conscious of, and we work very hard to avoid. Saying “no” might mean people decide that you’re incompetent.
Women have joined workplaces designed for men, and somewhere along the line we got the message that to succeed in these workplaces, we need to demonstrate competence. So we say yes, to prove that we can do that thing.
Studies have shown women gain approval from being liked, and we take that to mean that as well as being authoritative and powerful professionals and leaders, we also have to be likeable people. For women, part of being liked is being of service, of being helpful, caring. From a young age, many of us take responsibility not just for ourselves, but also for everybody else’s welfare.
The other thing is… some women in executive roles feel uncomfortable with the concept of power.
Because they’ve felt under the power or under the control of others – usually men – and so they decide they don’t want to impose that feeling on others.
That’s why, when a meeting ends, you’ll see some women leaders or women professionals be the last one out of the room. They’ve just chaired the meeting, but they’re the ones that are clearing the boardroom table, picking up the old coffee cups, all the pens left behind. They do it because they want to show that they are the team players, they’re the good girls.
It’s why women will step up into acting positions and assume additional responsibilities, quite often without any salary compensation.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, who gets the rewards, who gets the promotions – as long as the important work gets done.” That’s the kind of story that I’m hearing executive women tell themselves when they say yes all the time and still don’t get the rewards for it.
Q: Do you have any advice or tips on how to say “no” in the workplace?
I think the very first tip is to just pause when you receive a request. Part of our wanting to be approved, part of us wanting to show that we’re competent, is that we answer too quickly. We say “yes” too quickly. It would actually be great if women could just, when they get an unreasonable request, just payse in that moment.
You could say a number of things.
- “Let me get back to you on that.”
- “I need to think about whether or not I have capacity to do that.”
- “That task suits everything else that we’re trying to do – so yes, I will do that, but I need you to understand the implications of that in terms of the other things that are on my priorities.”
- “I’d love to help you with that. I can see that you think that’s important. Which of these other priorities are you happy for me to push aside?”
- “No, that doesn’t work for me. Thank you for thinking of us.”
The key to all of that is to just pause and think through what the impact is going to be, rather than leaping in with that sense of “I want to be a good girl. I want to do what’s asked. I want to show that I’m competent.”
Q: The other part of solving this problem is structural reform, addressing the bigger cultural issue at play. What’s the long-term solution here?
The structural correction is a long-term solution – but oh my goodness, we’ve got to start! Part of the issue is that it is such a big problem, and such a tangled problem, that organisations just don’t even start. I see this both in the public and private sector, but I see it more often in the public sector, because you’ve got women leaders there who bring this additional self-expectation around service. They will often accept more work than they ought to, simply because they are just so committed to getting the job done properly. And so it actually does that the organisation to decide to listen and to notice that there is too much work going on.
This is such a cliche, but it has to start at the top. It has to start with the chiefs. There has to be a commitment to a review and a realignment of the work. They have to ask seriously and listen to where the overwork issues are, and I promise you, they won’t have to dig deeply to find it.
It must not have to fall to the women leaders to initiate this kind of structural review, but women who are in positions of power, who can lead this conversation, should, because the benefits are not only for them and their employees, but the organisational performance.
Possibly easier in the short term – if you’re an employer and you’ve got tasks to allocate, don’t just ask for volunteers and then just hand it out to the first woman who breaks that silence… you have the responsibility to rotate them through your organisation in a transparent and coordinated and equitable way.
The other thing that I would love to see employers do that would make a difference is to quit with this old guard insistence that people can only perform to their employer’s satisfaction if they’re performing on site. This hybrid work debate that we continue to have after COVID is producing so much distraction… If you have employees you don’t trust to work at home without close supervision, then why are you still employing them?
This is particularly, although not exclusively, but particularly important for women at all levels of an organisation, because many of them do work a “second shift”. If you’re overloading them with work… if you’re requiring them to do the undervalued tasks… the least you can do I think is allow them the trust and the flexibility and the freedom to over deliver in their own time.
The post Breaking the ‘good girl’ mentality: Q+A with Karyn Brinkley on saying ‘no’ to extra tasks at work appeared first on Women’s Agenda.