On Saying No

Keep Calm and Just Say No
Credit: Flickr / Denise Dukette

In the nearly four years I spent at The Conglomerate, I did a lot to try and improve the number of women working in engineering. It’s not clear how much effect this had. But I spent a lot of time and energy on it.

Eyes open, I knew this wasn’t always the best career move. But sometimes we do things that we know aren’t the best career move but we believe are the right thing to do. Because paycheque and job title aside, we still have to look ourselves in the mirror at the end of the day.

And I believed that the events, the Token Women talks, the mentoring, the interviews, they were the right thing to do. So I did them. A lot of it in the evenings, and on the weekends. But of course, some of it, during the day. Sometimes I worked late and made the time up. Sometimes I didn’t.

Some of my colleagues were supportive. Some tolerated it. Some were “supportive” and talked good game but would make these comments so that I knew they thought it was a distraction from being an engineer. Some made comments about how these things discriminate against men.

An aside, whilst we talk about distractions, the biggest distractions were actually things like being called a c*** by a colleague, or finding the word “whore” in a design document. Supporting a friend and colleague because she was being harassed. Trying to watch out for all the interns without letting them know too clearly what they need to watch out for. Or the tedious day to day of being undermined in a stereotypically gendered way. Did he have to repeat everything I said in that meeting? Did he really speak to me like that in front of everyone? Why the hell is this guy explaining the code I wrote to me, again?

Showing up and giving a token women talk is not really that distracting compared to that. But I digress.

Eventually I reached this point where I didn’t believe it was the right thing to do anymore. I looked at the emotional cost, and the time, and the output – and the output felt like luring capable women into environments where they would be mistreated – and decided not to participate in Corporate Feminism anymore.

It might seem surprising that the most impactful thing I did for women actually came after that. But let me tell you what that was – I finally, must have been nearly a year later, wrote an internal G+ post about why I had stopped doing Corporate Feminism, and why. It’s lost to the ether now, but I remember that I wrote about no longer being confident it was the right thing to do, the exhausting judgement of my colleagues, and how painful it had been to try and get money for these things. That in an office rife with excess, I had actually spent time trying to negotiate for a car service for a speaker, been told “can’t she just take the tube?”

Something actually came of this. Last I heard it was still going, and people used it.

There’s something a little depressing about years of work and yet what really made a difference was 30-60 minutes writing a rant and posting it.

And yet. That discounts everything it took to write that rant. That rant was a product of hard won and bitter experience. The rant was effective because I understood the system and could explain how the system worked – or didn’t. It was effective because people who knew how much I cared, and how much I had done, I wasn’t just whining – I had worked within that system, but I wasn’t prepared to anymore.

Of course some people (men) thought it was whining, and wanted to share how they once felt unappreciated too. Unfortunately for them, I have a permanent 404 on worthless manfeelings. At the time I just ignored them. Now, I wonder why they thought that was useful? I had reached a level of frustration where I had given up nearly a year previously. Did they thing some comment about everyone being unappreciated was going to change my mind?

This was the start of my – surprisingly radical – notion that it is not too much to ask that work for the collective be appreciated. The people who appreciate me know that I will do anything for them. But people who try and force random obligations onto me, well. I have yet to tell anyone doing this to go f*** themselves so I consider myself a very reasonable person.

Saying no is a powerful thing. Refusing obligations and choosing your own priorities is an act of self care and an expression of hope. Saying no is an act of strength. A peaceful resistance. I embrace it, and as with all things, the more I do it the easier it gets.

No, I won’t do unpaid work for your for-profit company. No, I won’t introduce you to someone else who might. No, I will not cover my own travel for your “diversity” event. No I will not enter into an open-ended “mentoring” relationship with you, person who found me yesterday – please come back with some specific questions. No I won’t let you speak to me like that. No, I will not be complicit in this system that I find morally repugnant. No I will not help you “hire more women” if I am not confident they will be treated well. No, I will not keep quiet for the “sisterhood” if this sisterhood is only cis-het-white women because this leaves many of my sisters out.

Interestingly, this results in people (men) saying that I am not doing enough. That charge of “whining” again. First of all, I’m confident that me not doing enough is not actually contributing to a systematic problem. Deliberately, I choose here not to justify what I do do.

But I have this radical idea that by saying no and by encouraging other women to say no I am in fact doing more than ever. That we are reclaiming our rightful space and autonomy rather than putting in a second shift of stuff that “feels good” but is at best pointless and at worst harmful, and definitely offers little to nothing in the way of actual progress.

It’s my birthday this week and to celebrate for a limited time only Just Say NO to Thankless Emotional Labour t-shirts are available. Proceeds go to two amazing organisations, one in each of my homes (Europe / Colombia) and I’ll match up to 500 USD each [more detail].

2 thoughts on “On Saying No

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience, there are a few points I’ll be taking on to consider in my own actions.
    Particularly saying no, also supporting other women to say no. Especially to emotional labour tasks that are expected of women, yet overly praised if done by men.

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