How Being ‘Happy to Help’ Can Have an Impact on Your Career

iStock_000014539701XSmallBy Tina Vasquez, Managing Editor

Recently, Sharon Meers, Head of Magento Enterprise Strategy at eBay Inc., asserted that people “feel entitled to female help” at work.

The gendered assumption that women enjoy being accommodating and supportive seem to extend into the office with early findings from Frank Flynn, a professor at Columbia Business School, revealing that women are more likely to be asked to do favors or help out their coworkers. When they do, however, they are less appreciated for it than their male counterparts.

Flynn examined employees at two companies, finding that women were more likely than men to be asked for help and were also more likely to grant those requests. When those who received favors were asked how “indebted” they felt to the person granting them, women were appreciated less than men. It was also found that women who seem more “agreeable” are even less appreciated than women who were seen as less agreeable but provided help.

As a result, women are spending important time overloaded on menial tasks, such as arranging office parties.

In her writing on the research, Meers said that we’re doing our daughters “no favors when we support the belief that ‘women are happy to help.’’’

Carol Frohlinger, co-author of Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It: 99 Ways to Win the Respect You Deserve, the Success You’ve Earned, and the Life You Want”, says that from childhood, girls are conditioned to be “nice” and “helpful”, but these over-caring characteristics prove to be a disservice when women enter the ultra-competitive workplace.

“There are so many assumptions made about women in the workplace. If they’re asked to do a favor; if they’re asked to take on additional work; if they’re asked to stay late; it’s assumed they’ll be grateful to do these taxing, inconvenient things,” says Frohlinger, a strategic partner of “These stereotypes about women being nurturing and collaborative and happy to help are pervasive. Men in the workplace feel entitled to our time and they are unappreciative of it when they receive it.”

Just Say No
Given that so much of the problem is rooted in deeply-ingrained assumptions surrounding gender roles, being unappreciated in the workplace isn’t an easy issue to overcome. However, there are strategies that can help begin to unravel this deeply troubling phenomenon. The most important of which: learning to say no.

“Sometimes this deep-seated entitlement is situational, sometimes it’s part of the company culture, either way you have to be aware of it. You have to see it for what it is and the second you notice the pattern, you have to learn to say no,” Frohlinger said.

In psychiatrist and researcher Nanette Gartrell’s book, “My Answer Is No … If That’s Okay With You”, she wrote, “No is a very simple word. One syllable. Two letters. One of the shortest words in the English language, yet one of the most difficult for women to say at work.” According to Joyce E. A. Russell, vice dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, some of the most popular reasons why women struggle to say no are: women are people pleasers; they put the needs of others in front of their own; they want to be compassionate and help others; they want to be well liked; and perhaps most pertinent to the topic at hand: they want to show they’re team players and they figure if they don’t do something themselves, it might get done poorly.

Russell offers a wide range of useful strategies to help women begin to embrace the all-powerful word “no”, including creating “Absolute No” and “Absolute Yes” lists. The “Absolute No” list, Russell says, should encompass things “you no longer do, no longer want to do, or would like to give up in the future.” She cites examples such as no longer checking e-mails after 9 p.m. or accepting phone calls during family dinners. The “yes” list should only feature top priorities, such as family, community service, work projects, emotional, and physical health.

The vice dean also recommends pausing first before giving an answer, giving yourself time to ask questions about what will be required of you, as well as time to consider your answer. Among other recommendations, perhaps the most important outlined by Russell is setting “no” as your default answer. “Instead of starting with ‘Yes, I will see if I can do it,’ start with ‘No,’” she wrote.

Clearly, women can find themselves in a Catch 22: if they continue saying yes to everything that’s asked of them, they’ll continue to go unappreciated and treated as a doormat. If they begin saying no to all of the requests they receive, the threat of backlash is very real. A great tactic is to kill them with kindness. In other words, take the characteristic that’s gotten you into this mess and turn it on its head.

Frohlinger provides an example of how this would play out.

“Say you’ve been asked, for the third year in a row, to mentor the summer interns. You can say, ‘I appreciate the opportunity to mentor the summer interns again, but I was thinking it could be a good experience for others in the department.’ You’re not saying no outright, you’re not saying you don’t want to do it – it’s more nuanced than that. The message will be received.”

Moving Forward
Work-life journalist Cindy Krischer Goodman cites findings in author John Gray’s “Work With Me: The Blind Spots between Men and Women in Business” to illustrate that men are often oblivious that they aren’t making their appreciation obvious.

“When he asked men if they women they worked with felt appreciated, the majority answered yes. But when he asked the women they said no,” Krischer wrote. “Gray found the standard way of doling out recognition and praise can leave female employees feeling frustrated and overlooked.”

Krischer challenges women who feel unappreciated in the workplace to push for what they need.

“Going forward, we have to realize that men are not going to take it upon themselves to make us feel appreciated — we have to shed our shut up and stay put attitude and ask for appreciation… if we deserve it. We’ve slowly begun to change expectations at home, to gain some more appreciation for our contributions. Now, we have to do the same in our workplaces.”

Feeling appreciation is one issue, but being given gendered tasks at work “because you are girl” is another issue entirely. It’s important to challenge assumptions and begin questioning who gets to do what at work and why.