It was one of those late-night Gchats where you think you’re just complaining, but you end up revealing a deeper truth. A few years ago, I was having a hard time managing the visions and expectations of my bosses, who were all men. “i am under pressure from my bosses to hire someone i really don’t want to,” I vented to a friend, “and i just feel like my whole life is staving off dudes. saying NO, NO, NO.”
I’d found myself in a role I never wanted to occupy: the “no” woman.
The “no” woman is the opposite of a “yes” man. She’s usually not an administrative assistant or junior employee — most often, she is part of the leadership team in the company or on a particular project. And whether it’s part of her official job description or not, she’s the person who’s there to say no. She provides a counterbalance to the creative visionary and a reality check after a brainstorming session. She finds herself continually speaking up to temper her colleagues’ expectations or modify their strategies, either because it’s part of her job to control budgets and keep everyone within the bounds of the law, or because she is simply more rational than the freewheelin’ “ideas men” she works with.
You see her in pop culture. In the opening monologue of the newly rebooted X-Files, Agent Fox Mulder describes how he came to work with Agent Dana Scully: “In 1993, the FBI sought to impugn my work, bringing in a scientist and medical doctor to debunk it.” Scully, whose entire character is based on skepticism, is the consummate “no” woman.
She shows up in politics, too. While the practical nature of women legislators is often lauded, this trait is not without its electoral difficulties. “They’re the wet blankets, the ones all too acquainted with the limitations imposed by the world, and all too eager to explain their various ideas for working around them,” Rebecca Traister wrote this week, after Hillary Clinton’s tie with Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses. Male candidates, on the other hand, “are permitted a slightly looser approach.”
But the easiest place to find a “no” woman is your own workplace. Maybe even your own mirror.
While there are certainly many “no” men, too, there’s a reason I associate this role with women. Even when our job description doesn’t specify that it’s our responsibility to rein in our colleagues, it just tends to happen. A friend who works as a consultant has observed that men “are never the one taking notes! They are never the ones writing out the after-meeting ‘action items’ list.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself acting as de facto secretary for male colleagues who are no higher on the org chart than you are.) “Whoever is actually doing the documenting ends up needing to own the fact that no one agreed on a motherfucking thing. If you think your role in a meeting is just to drop your glorious magic genius and then peace out, it’s easy to never have to say no.”
Often, women get a shot at leadership precisely because the company has been ruined by self-styled geniuses and is now in desperate need of a few incidents of no. Paula Schneider assumed the CEO role at American Apparel a year ago, and she’s still cleaning up Dov Charney’s messes. “We didn’t want a giant charismatic figure CEO — we had one of those already,” the board chair told Elle last year. “We needed a practical, no-nonsense person. The fact that she was a woman was just the icing on the cake.” Or, some of us would argue, it was baked in.
But just because people can admit they need a “no” woman at work doesn’t mean that they like having her around — or that they are eager to follow her directives. After Schneider was named CEO, employees protested the change in leadership, and Charney attempted a coup to regain control. (A judge put him in his place last week.) While most women would insist we want to be judged solely by the quality of our work and not by our perceived likability, only a liar would tell you that it’s easy to be the one delivering hard news all the time. That’s especially true when “bearer of bad news” is not an explicit part of the job you signed up for, but a default role you find yourself in.
No one ever warns you that saying no is so time-consuming. Even when naysaying is a valued trait — part of the job description for a crucial role at the company — that doesn’t mean it’s easy to say no day after day or that your colleagues will appreciate hearing from you. A friend who’s a lawyer at a tech company told me that she goes out of her way to soften the blow. Instead of “No, you can’t do that,” she says, “Mmmm, let’s do this instead,” then quickly follows it up with some small talk: “Hey, are you watching Transparent? What’s the plan for lunch?” She says it’s more effective than the “father-knows-best” approach taken by some of her male colleagues in the legal department. “At this point it’s an automatic shift in my brain, but it’s still tiring,” she says. “Emotional work, who knew?”
This is the great irony of being hemmed into the role of “no” woman. You are perceived to be rather cold and rules-oriented, when in fact you are expending a ton of creative and emotional effort for far less professional glory. On The X-Files, Scully’s skepticism is proved wrong again and again — there is alien DNA in that human blood, and there is a vast government conspiracy. On the campaign trail, Clinton’s pragmatism is held up as proof that she’s not progressive enough. And we’ll see how long Schneider hangs on to her corner office at American Apparel. In a world that venerates freewheeling visionaries, it’s easy to vilify the professionals who are asking hard questions and staying focused on pragmatic details. Especially when they happen to be women.