How to Advocate For Yourself

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How to advocate for yourself, two women talking in an office
Breaking Barriers

Recently, I was at a fast-food-restaurant-that-shall-remain-nameless because, duh, coin. I am a woman of simple habits and order quite literally the same thing every time. So I settle in to do some good old-fashioned scrolling on the apps (and maybe update my dating profile(s)) when my order arrives. As I begin to enjoy my food, I realize that my half-sweet/half-unsweet tea with no ice is overflowing with ice. I politely ask the person who dropped it off if they could fix it, and they politely obliged. A few moments later, here they come with my beverage, and guess what? Ice cubes. 

At this point, the social conditioning I’ve endured (without out my permission, mind you) for four decades sounded off alarms in my head to just let it go and enjoy the entire three sips of tea I would be able to rescue from the iceberg of frozen water that was melting in the cup. My heart rate increased slightly as I contemplated stewing in dissatisfaction with my glacier of ice or possibly inconveniencing the staff by requesting another drink. 

Before they could get too far, I mustered the courage to ask for another replacement. The staff member returned with my drink (sans ice) and remarked, “Wow, you sure are particular about your order!” I don’t know if they were annoyed or not, but I reminded myself that it was my job to advocate for what I wanted (especially since I paid for it) regardless of whether or not it got on someone’s nerves. Moreover, it was the team’s responsibility at the nameless restaurant to ensure they got the order right. 

But if I’m being honest, this was hard to do, even in a scenario where I was clear about what I wanted and even swiped my little debit card to make sure I got it. In everyday situations like this, some folks struggle with self-advocation, but when the stakes are much higher (read: at work), not knowing how to advocate for yourself can have consequences that have a more significant impact on you than suffering through watered-down sweet tea.

Let’s back up just a bit: what is self-advocacy? 

In a nutshell, it’s the ability to speak on your own behalf and clearly communicate your needs. Sometimes self-advocacy is conflated with self-confidence, particularly when folks try to explain why women+ tend to be less likely to advocate for themselves. However, a Harvard Business Review study found there’s little evidence that women+ lack self-confidence when compared to men. Instead, they were “perceived as lacking self-confidence unless they exhibited signs of caring for others and warmth, neither of which contribute to the perception of self-confidence in men in the workplace.” This can explain why 73% of women+ fear how they’re perceived when self-advocating, as they cite experiencing backlash for showing up as assertive in the workplace. 

Women+ often experience what law professor Joan Williams calls “tightrope bias,” where they have to tread a narrow line between being too masculine or feminine. The intersectionality of race and gender further complicates the experiences of women+ of color, especially for Black women+ who have been historically portrayed as “aggressive” when communicating basic emotions like frustration, disappointment, or (god forbid) anger.

With archaic gender stereotypes and racist tropes still permeating the workplace, it’s no surprise that 41% of women+ report that they don’t advocate for themselves nearly enough or even at all. women+ are still afraid of being labeled as aggressive and fear backlash or retribution from management should they self-advocate for things like pay equity, advancement opportunities, or flexible work schedules. And while recent studies show that this is changing as more younger professionals join the workforce (Gen Z will save us all), the ideas of how women+ should show up at work are still fundamentally engrained in our systems.

I bet you’re wondering: If the systems we navigate operate in oppressive ways, how can I even begin to advocate for myself?

Is one person capable of making enough change that it’s worth the risk? Ultimately, that’s up to you. Developing self-advocation skills can serve you in all aspects of your life, not just at work. Advocating for yourself gives other women+ permission to do so, too. Sometimes seeing someone else do things we’ve never done before is the little inspiration we need to take similar action in our lives. So here are some tips to help:

Be clear and specific about what you want.
Do you want a more flexible work schedule? Then detail the hours you want to work and how the flexibility will allow you to maintain or improve your current workflow. Do you want a raise? Come up with a number that reflects your tenure with the company, your experience, and current market analysis of the salary for your position. The more clarity and details you have, the better argument you can make.

Start small.
Maybe you want to ask for a raise, but the thought of going through with it makes you want to throw up (we’ve all been there, friend). Start with something less daunting, like requesting an extension on a project or proposing a way to streamline a process. Present your request with potential outcomes should they agree as a way to practice your negotiation skills. 

Practice the ask.
Practicing can be beneficial if you don’t typically have these types of conversations. Write out a script and read it in front of a mirror. Invite your bestie over to role-play and have them throw out potential curveball questions. Practice makes progress.

Help me help you.
Since we’re still in this heteronormative hellscape where women+ are expected to be altruistic, consider leveraging language to your advantage. How does your request help the team? The company? The world (that’s a little dramatic, but you get the idea)? Phrases like “mutually beneficial” or “this will benefit us both/all” demonstrate that you have considered the potential impact of your request and determined a solution that benefits all parties involved.

Give yourself grace.
This phrase has low-key become a mantra here at SGO, but for real, it’s hard out here in these streets. We don’t always get things right. We fumble. We mess up. It’s part of the beauty (and cringe) of being human. And you know what? That’s ok! Be easy with yourself. Give things a try and reassess. At the end of the day, you are your best asset and advocate. It may take a while to get into the whole “self-advocation” groove, but you owe it to yourself to be the one who stands up for you when no one else will. 

Want more kind and compassionate advice on how to be there for you? Join us for our upcoming Breaking Barriers Program!