Be Entitled

On my way out the door, I’m starting to impart my last words of wisdom to our newest hires. It didn’t really dawn on me until the past year that there’s a cohort of people who look up to me. Not just as a manager but as a… mentor? Whom they ask for… advice? It still feels awkward to think about.

When I joined my company, there were no other women in the firm’s technology group. Just twenty-five-ish guys, most of which were at least six feet tall, all of which were white.

Now, our team has six women out of a group of thirty-ish, not including myself. Two of which are non-white. In spite of the fact that I’d never considered myself the type of person to actively lean in, guess how many of those women moved into our group after I started getting involved in hiring decisions.

In my short time I’ve even been in the position to mentor others– not just women, but especially women– there’s one thing that I’ve wanted, desperately have tried to impart, over and over:

Be entitled!

Now, being entitled doesn’t mean what you might think. It doesn’t mean being a jerk, doesn’t mean to obstinately block progress lest you get exactly your way. But it does mean getting what you deserve and really knowing you deserve it too, even if the little gremlins in your head tell you maybe it’s an overreach, maybe you aren’t ready.

Here’s the thing: over the years, I’ve had the benefit of learning from some really smart and talented men. One thing I’ve learned is that when those men have very strong convictions about something, they make sure those convictions are heard. Sometimes prolongedly, sometimes stepping on the toes of others, sometimes ad nauseum until a poor new hire is checking the clock every thirty seconds to see if she’s going to make it out of this meeting in time to catch the train to a dinner party she needs to get to. And these men do this not because they are trying to be jerks, but because we work in an environment premised on collaborative argumentation and in that environment they are entitled to have their opinions heard in full and considered by others in good faith.

It took me a while to get used to this way of working. When I was new I would often come and go from meetings not having said a word, feeling unsure of how to interrupt and make space for my opinions. Managers would have to call on me like I was still a student, YAPFB, what do you think about this? YAPFB, you’ve done the analysis, does this fit what you’ve seen?

It took a few good mentors, men who are staunch feminists and walk the walk, to reiterate for me again and again: You can interrupt. You are entitled to have your opinion heard. You are allowed to take up space. It had been so engrained in me all my life to be as background as possible, to take up as little oxygen in the room as I could, that my understanding of my own desert was warped. While I didn’t need my mentors permission, I did need their reminder:  I am not just allowed, I am entitled.

This revelation of entitlement expanded to other areas of my work life. I was not just entitled to be heard, I was also entitled to be paid. I was not just entitled to be paid, but I was also entitled not to take on all the career-stunting admin work that nobody else wanted to do because I was so “organized.” I was entitled to work-life balance and, as a human, I was entitled to sometimes make a mistake. I am entitled not to hear sexist jokes by the water cooler and I am entitled when I hear them to call them out.

When I see newer, younger women in my group, I often see a mirror of my younger self’s habits and behaviors. Recently, one of our newer hires jumped back into projects the day after a semi-serious head injury and working into the late hours of the night to hit a couple of deadlines. Because she felt like she had to fulfill her obligations to the team, she ended up exacerbating her injury. When I told her manager that I was concerned, he said, “I think it’s cute that she works so hard.” #nope, going to go flip some tables now

Because she, you, I, all humans in decent living conditions are entitled to drop tasks after a head injury. (Hopefully not silently, but whatcha gonna do?) Basic things, health being the first among that list, nobody else should be able to take from you. Not your employer, not anyone. You as a person, an identity you had way before you as an employee, are entitled to that.

It’s taken a lot of practice to feel comfortable being entitled. To learn to assert my own desert than to wait for others assert it on my behalf. To learn to state what I feel entitled to instead of asking if I am entitled to them. To be– if I’m being flip about it– like “one of the boys,” who haven’t had a sense of diminutiveness, of sweet and passive deference cudgeled into them from the day they were born. I hope to pass this along to the next cohort of women as well as I can, with what little time I have.

What advice would you give young professional women in your field?

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7 thoughts on “Be Entitled

  1. Have totally been there, felt that! Especially when I was a grad student and just starting out. What I started doing was preparing 3 things in advance I want to bring up in the meeting. I still do that, honestly, if I know a particular meeting is going to be argumentative. What I realized is that (most) people are not arguing at you personally, they are arguing because they want to make the work better. Now I even tend to enjoy these debates 🙂 I would rather talk to someone with opinions than to a sheep.

    Another way this comes up for me is at technical conferences. When there are 200 men in a room and you’re going to raise your hand to ask a technical question (at the risk of sounding dumb), my heart still pounds. But you know what? I just force myself to do it.

    One last very specific thing: look people straight in the eye when speaking to them. It’s happened more than once where I’ll look around at my teammates while talking, just to include them in the conversation, and people will misinterpret that as doubt or seeking help. So just stare at your audience directly!

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    1. The eye contact thing is such a good point. I’ve gotten the same feedback that it seems like I’m demuring, even though it always felt like I was giving sufficient eye contact and focusing? More than what comes naturally feels like a sign of aggression, though I’m not sure where I got that in my head. But whatever, now I’ve resigned myself to what feels like yelling at people with my eyes.

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  2. I don’t think this is career advice but for me (I worked with all women and one guy, total reverse from your situation) and new hires like me had a really tough time with one female manager. In another sense, it was admirable because I was like “wow, she went through a divorce and can still rock it in a $1000 coat on her own dime. Power!” But she was scary because she bulldozed the new hires like me. It wasn’t to harm us, that was just her version of tough love. She probably wanted us to succeed just as much as we did. She literally kicked me once, hard, on the thigh and she blinked like “whoops” but didn’t apologize (but I could tell she couldn’t, power struggle.) The only male manager really trusted her. She probably always had to be/act tough.

    My advice isn’t to watch out for women (lord no) but to understand personality types go either way with men and women. And she’s not a bad manager, everyone’s got their way of doing things.

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    1. She KICKED you and didn’t apologize??? That’s not okay.

      I think there’s a big difference between being tough and being a jerk.

      I can be a hardass at my job. When I set expectations for my team, for instance, I want them to meet a standard of rigor. Even if that means more work. This isn’t always super popular. But I’ll put in the time to help them get better, but I expect a level of effort back.

      Never though would I ever physically or emotionally try to dominate my colleagues. It not only makes the environment less pleasant, but that sort of behavior either causes your subordinates to do worse work or burnout quickly.

      So I guess my advice to young managers might be: tough != cruel.

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  3. Great advice, and something that I think would be applicable to a lot of different workplaces.

    And oh darn about the colleague with the injury. I don’t even think most of my junior biglaw peers would jump right back into it the day after something like that (though er, this is more because everyone’s been lucky enough to be in good health so the issue’s never come up as such, and also a bit because we’re generally in large offices and large practice groups where we really are fungible, and another junior actually could just step in). Although people in most larger biglaw offices are generally good about covering for someone who is very sick or injured or had something very serious come up, the industry in general probably still does have unhealthy expectations about hours worked (i.e. someone working while they’re in labor or supposed to be on maternity leave… could easily happen, particularly for those more senior people who aren’t so easily replaced). Associates do sometimes get put in situations where they’re overstaffed and regularly asked to work hours that would start harming anyone’s health, and can’t easily get out of their matters. At that point, alas, the only solution is often to leave the firm.

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    1. The junior colleague just came in from a more demanding department where they frequently yell and do drop-everything-and-fly-out-for-72-hours-straight-of-work sort of things so I think her expectations of what she was supposed to push herself to do was a bit extreme. Also she considers herself a bit of a “workaholic” which I find worrying because, while I don’t want to mother her, she’s a really good hire and I don’t want her to burn out.

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