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Repeat After Me: Just Say No

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If we want to close the ambition gap, a good first step might be learning how to shake our heads.

There's this great quote from Feminist icon Germaine Greer: "When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work." She was being somewhat facetious. But then again, not so much.

Which leads me to wonder: Would women be more powerful if we could just say no? A couple of recent studies just say yes.

Some say that women are hard-wired to please. Others say we're socialized that way. In either case, we see it all the time: Good little girls doing as they're told at home, eager for the stamp of approval from mommy or daddy; older girls sitting still in class and turning in their homework on time to please their teachers.

But what's surprising is that, according to a new study, even those of us raised with the "you go, girl" rhetoric never seem to outgrow our eagerness to please. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a paper presented at the American Economic Association meeting earlier this month confirms that even when we grow up, we're much more likely to say "yes" when we want to say "no."

The study focused on 47 business school students who were asked to recall a time when they were asked to do a favor on the job when they really didn't want to. And guess what?

The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

Ya think? The researchers further postulated that this willingness to do favors "may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks."

In other words, when we find ourselves locked into a continuing chorus of "Sure, I'll be happy to...", it not only saps our time, but zaps our power as well.

So much for the need to say no when we're at work. Head on over to the homefront and you find another related power drain: According to a new study out of The University of California at Berkeley and Emory University, women who rule the roost at home are less likely "to pursue promotions and other career advancement steps at the office." In other words, when you're the CEO at home, you're much less likely to ever come close to the C-suite at work:

"It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women's traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home," said UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen, a co-author of the study.




Despite the feminist movement and other gender equity efforts, women largely retain authority over child-rearing and household chores and finances, with men deferring to their expertise in these matters, researchers point out. This paradigm has had an impact on women's career choices, the study implies.

Whether all this power over domestic decisions takes away our ambition by fulfilling our innate need for power -- or simply drains our energy -- is hard to know for sure. But, says Chen, when it comes to seizing power in the workplace, we ought to let some go at home. Women need to "at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making."

In other words, there's only so much of us to go around, and we should use ourselves wisely. The first step might be to reconsider the messaging we've been raised with: As we've written here and in our book, told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that we could do everything -- and we'd better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: Every choice entails a trade-off. If you're doing A, you can't be doing B.

Or, in light of the studies above, you can't be doing favors for someone else at work and still have time to charge ahead on your own projects. Nor, apparently, can you run the household like a CEO -- and have any mojo left when it comes to climbing the ladder at work. Which is to say, we need to give ourselves permission to let go. Or even abdicate. Even if it means that some things get done less than perfectly. Or not at all.

When you think about it, it's all pretty simple. All we need do is learn to say no.