If you’re like many of my female friends and me, you might also remember when you first realized that you were being paid less than a male colleague at work, were taking less time off than your male coworkers, or were being overlooked for a promotion or a coveted assignment because you hadn’t asked to be considered. Or you recall the time you didn’t ask for more help on the home front, only to be stuck juggling a last-minute request at the office that delayed your departure along with the children’s complicated after-school schedule, the dog sitter who quit, and an overdue birthday present for your nephew.
If you have a young girl in your life, you’re also undoubtedly wondering how to ensure that this sort of thinking doesn’t continue into the next generation. How can we make sure that today’s girls grow into women who understand not just how to speak up but how to effectively use their voice to influence others, in and out of the workplace? What can we do to ensure that tomorrow’s leading women ask for what they need and want, and get what they deserve, personally and professionally?
Why is the ask so important?
No doubt, very few of us have seen “effective asker” listed on a résumé or LinkedIn profile. Like many of the essential skills we’ll discuss in this book, the ability to productively persuade another person, group, or organization to give you what you need or want is a skill that is often attributed to natural talent or perhaps one’s personality. As a result, it’s not something that many people think to nurture in themselves or focus on for our girls—despite the fact that a knack for asking (and receiving!) is so crucial to success, whether you’re employed at a large company, trying to get a small business off the ground, working part time, navigating the complicated realities of being a stay-at-home parent, negotiating the terms of your first apartment lease, buying a car, or trying to get the support your daughter needs at school.
When we consider what our children’s future looks like, it becomes clear that the ability to effectively ask will be even more critical in decades to come.
When we consider what our children’s future looks like, it becomes clear that the ability to effectively ask will be even more critical in decades to come. Not only are the nature of work and types of jobs people will have evolving, but the structures that define work are changing, too. Today’s youngest workers change jobs more often than previous generations, with most switching positions and companies four times in the first 10 years after college. For comparison, those of us born from the 1960s to the 1980s average only two job changes before turning 32 years old. And women appear to job-hop more than men. Meanwhile, more and more young people aspire to be independent entrepreneurs: 77% of students in middle and high school want to be their own boss one day, and 45% want to start their own business. The children of Generation Z, which includes girls and boys born after 1995, are considered among the most entrepreneurial, and recent studies confirm a higher rate of what’s called entrepreneurial intention, or seeing yourself as a likely entrepreneur, among this younger generation. As a result of this changing outlook in the next generation of workers, companies have started to alter how they recruit, retain, and reward talent—offering things like flextime, student loan repayment, overseas assignments, or other creative benefits for those who ask effectively.
The combined growing influences of a shifting job market, historically nontraditional forms of work, and more personalized approaches to compensating performance add a new layer of complication for young women not skilled at negotiating. But if we prepare them correctly, a talent for asking and persuading can be a critical aspect of how they thrive in the new dynamics of the professional world.
What’s more, as technology and globalization make the world even more interconnected and as the future of work demands greater entrepreneurial skills, “success” will be determined more and more by your ability to effectively advocate for yourself and productively influence those in your personal and professional network. The ability to persuade and negotiate will become increasingly vital, and a talent for asking effectively will become a core differentiator, whether you’re in a junior or a senior role. For jobs in many of the industries that today’s school-age kids admire, including in technology and as an entrepreneur, being persuasive is essential for success. This is the adult world awaiting today’s kids.
In fact, the fundamental soft skills that translate into a talented “asker” are already at the top of the list of what employers want most in new hires. When the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed companies about what they look for in a candidate’s résumé, more than two-thirds said they prioritized skills like written and verbal communication, leadership, initiative, and the ability to work in a team—all elements core to those who can effectively persuade others and ask for what they need. Meanwhile, skills like tactfulness, friendliness, and, perhaps surprisingly, fluency in a foreign language were at the bottom of the wish list.
This vision of our girls’ future is further complicated by the unavoidable realities facing young women who want both a career and a family when they grow up. Studies show that more women aspire to not just find a fulfilling job but to ambitiously pursue leadership roles in their chosen industry. In PwC’s 2018 survey of 3,637 professional women from 61 countries around the world and across industries, 75% said that getting to the top of their career and reaching a leadership position is important, and 82% felt confident in their ability to fulfill their career objectives. Even so, 42% felt “nervous” about how having children would impact their career, while 48% of new mothers felt “overlooked” for promotions and special projects; those numbers jumped to 53% and 63%, respectively, for women who self-identify as minorities.
As we encourage our girls to imagine their own most successful personal and professional adult selves, we must also give them the skills they need to advocate for themselves effectively and navigate the compromises that will have to be made, at work and at home, to thrive in multiple spheres of life. There is no magic wand to help them achieve work-life balance—particularly, as any mother who works outside the home will admit, the Zen-like picture of work-life balance that seems possible only in a Hollywood movie. Almost any life that our young girls imagine will come with natural tensions between the personal and the professional. As we talk about this reality more openly with young women, we also need to make sure they are prepared to navigate the difficult moments they’ll no doubt face. That will make it all the more critical for girls to ask for what they need in their personal lives, too.
From What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women by Marisa Porges, PhD, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Marisa Porges.
Marisa Porges is a former U.S. Naval officer, senior White House adviser, and head of the Baldwin School.