Finding Your Voice: Advocating and Negotiating for Yourself as a Woman in the Workplace

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One of my favorite peers is a woman who has, for the life of her career, been on the CEO trajectory. She is confident, smart, caring and amazingly driven. No matter the setbacks life has thrown her way, she has achieved incredible success and earned respect and admiration from everyone she’s worked with. 

She called me one afternoon to share good news: the path to becoming CEO was opening up in front of her. She knew that soon, she’d be on the short list for the most powerful position at the company. It was the moment she had been working toward her entire life. She had a crucial meeting coming up where she would have the opportunity to put her hat in the ring.

To my shock, I heard hesitation in her voice. When I asked her what was going on, she said simply, “I don’t know, Candace. I’m not sure that I’m ready for this!” 

I couldn’t believe it. If there was one person in the world who was ready for advancement, it was her. But in that moment, she was crippled with self-doubt. Her boss was considering her for the role, yet she wondered if, maybe, she would fail—then what would become of her? Maybe there were other people more qualified, who had done more to position themselves to be next in line for CEO. 

I asked her what the job entailed. If she were expected to do the listed tasks as part of her current role, could she do them? Her answer was yes to each question. “You are ready,” I challenged her, reminding her that not only was she qualified to be CEO—if she were a man, research showed she likely would not be questioning her “readiness” for the job. After this, I took a moment to reflect on what was really going on in this situation.

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It is important to set ourselves up for success financially, which we talked about in chapter 1. It is important to work hard, which we talked about in chapter 2. And it is supremely important that, while we do those things, we continually advocate for ourselves, which we will discuss in this chapter. Self-advocacy is important not just for day-to-day successes, but for paving the path we see ourselves on in future months and years.

If speaking up or speaking out is new or challenging for you, I encourage you to try. Even baby steps are a path forward. And if you find yourself in a place where your voice can’t be heard, consider whether you are in the best place for you—and do something about it. 

Find Your Voice

In my TEDx Talk, I advise women to speak up for themselves and never choose to silence themselves. Research shows us that generally, women have a harder time speaking up for ourselves than men. Women with families especially are more likely to be risk averse and to employ intentional invisibility as a strategy for navigating workplace barriers. It’s a combination of a few things, but I think it can be accurately summed up like this: As a society, women who are compliant are viewed more positively than women who aren’t compliant. Women are taught at a young age, through either words or example, that by speaking up for themselves they are being “difficult.” Therefore, we learn not to speak up unless we are certain we are right and/or safe. 

You know who’s not doing all that second-guessing? Your male counterparts. 

Which means that no matter how much saving you’re doing and how much hard work you’re putting in, if you’re not advocating for yourself and your future, you are lowering your ability to achieve the success you deserve.

To be sure, women have gotten better at this, especially in recent history. I would never discount all the progress we have made. But we have a ways to go, and it starts with you finding your voice, in big and small ways, on a consistent basis. 

Some of the best advice ever given to me came early in my career, when I left a meeting filled with basic questions I hadn’t asked for fear of looking stupid in front of my new colleagues. I spoke to a mentor about how I was feeling, and his words of wisdom have remained with me ever since.

“Candace, if something isn’t clear to you in a meeting, chances are that at least one or two other people in the room have the same question you do. And even if they don’t, a little repetition of key concepts or ideas never hurt anyone. Speak up!”

I’m not suggesting you speak up just for the sake of talking during every meeting. But when you believe you have valuable information to share, have a question to pose or hear something that’s unclear to you, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification, no matter who is leading the meeting or who might hear your question.

You might be thinking that this sounds good in theory, but in practice can be very intimidating. You’re right! If you’re the type of person who has never spoken up for herself, it’s scary to think that you might need to start, and in the beginning things can be difficult. However, knowing different strategies for advocacy and self-efficacy means that you will have a better shot at overcoming gender stereotypes and expectations.

Creating an Advocacy Network 

Advocacy work doesn’t begin and end with your personal experience. Once you get comfortable speaking up for yourself when you have an idea you want to share or a concept you want clarified, then we get to the good stuff: building a network of advocates around you. 

Again, this is not work that will happen overnight. It will happen through careful planning and prioritization, as well as trial and error. It will happen through quick chats in passing in the hallway, as well as crucial conversations that involve giving and receiving difficult feedback. 

Putting yourself out there in this way can feel big and scary if you aren’t used to asking questions and making bold statements. And here’s why it helps: the next time a promotion or business opportunity that you would be right for comes along, you will have a team of people from all different facets of the organization who know not only your work ethic, but what your goals are. You won’t have to worry about being at the right meeting and saying the right thing at the right time. You’ll have a team of people with whom you have cultivated meaningful relationships who will speak up for you.

And you, in turn, will do the same thing for them. Networks aren’t created for just one person’s advancement. Building a mutually beneficial advocacy network is a winning strategy across the board. Think of it as building bridges with your peers that you can rely on for the lifetime of your career.

Effective Negotiation

While all this might sound doable in theory, there is no doubt that in practice learning to find and consistently use your voice can be a challenge. Inspiration, however, can come from anywhere. Early in my career, while reading an in-flight magazine seminar ad on negotiation, I read a quote by negotiation expert Dr. Chester Karris: “In business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.”

The art of negotiation is a powerful skill to master in your career.

So, where do you begin to put your self-efficacy into practice when you’re in a challenging spot?

No matter the situation, start with listing your nonnegotiables. Do your homework and be clear about the things you simply cannot and will not bend on. Lead with positive elements of your collaboration and find the ways in which you and the person you’re in conflict with are in sync. Frame your ask so it’s not such a heavy lift for the person you’re talking to. When in doubt, check out the myriad of articles published on the web that lay out all the different negotiation tactics you can try.

The point of advocating for yourself isn’t to win every argument or get your way all the time. It also isn’t just about getting people to like you or agree with you.

Self-advocacy is about taking control of your career with intention and leading with integrity. This is important when times are good, but it’s especially important when times are hard.

Reproduced by permission from Candace Steele Flippin, Get Your Career in SHAPE: A Five-Step Guide to Achieve the Success You Need, Want, and Deserve (Minneapolis, MN: Wise Ink, 2022), Chapter 3. © 2022 by Candace Steele Flippin.Photo by @madelinerosephoto/Twenty20

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