On Having to Say No Over and Over

I talk to students, colleagues, employees in the Writing Center, and others in academia constantly about the importance of saying no. Just like in other realms, women in academia are regularly asked to take on more service work than men and more work that isn’t even recognized as work, like organizing a potluck or cleaning out the break room fridge. And doing that work is actually held against women, who are then seen as being unable to prioritize and set boundaries or making poor choices about how to spend their time.

As aspect of saying no that many people overlook is that you often have to say it over and over, even to the same request. This makes really saying no tough, because you have to first work up the nerve to say no, and then you have to keep saying no as the request is made repeatedly and you are given “opportunities” to reconsider your answer.

This is exactly what happened to me this year. I had to say no adamantly FOUR times around one service request:

First No: Last summer, as I was trying to decide if I should run for treasurer of a national organization, I had a conversation with my chair about the time and energy it would take and asked her if it would be possible for me to take on no new service commitments in the department if I became treasurer. I already serve on several department and university-level committees and am co-editor of my institution’s UR journal, so I want to be clear that I wasn’t getting a pass on service—just a commitment to not have anything new added. She gave me her assurance that my request was reasonable and that it would be honored.

I did ultimately become treasurer of the organization.

Second No: Fast forward to November. A high workload departmental committee I am on had a leadership vacuum and without any conversation with me, my department chair emailed the entire committee announcing that I would be co-chairing it. I immediately emailed her, reminding her of our summer conversation and plainly stating that I could not co-chair the committee. To her credit, she admitted she had forgotten about our summer conversation and appointed someone else.

Third No: January. That same high workload committee experienced another leadership vacuum and a faculty member who works closely with the chair came to me and asked why I couldn’t chair the committee. When I said that I simply couldn’t, she said, “Well, if you don’t do it, I’ll have to ask [male colleague], and he’s already so busy.”

Fourth No: Later January. Said male colleague asked me if I was certain I couldn’t chair the committee. I assured him I was.

So that’s four NOs, all around the same request. I want to highlight a few details:

  • With the second no, I wasn’t even asked if I would take on the role and so saying no meant having to deal with the emotional labor of knowing I was putting the chair in the awkward position of having to rescind a decision and inviting questions from others about why I was announced as a co-chair and then announced as not being a co-chair. Saying no often means feeling like you’re putting others in a bad position. The reality is that the chair put herself in a bad position by not talking to me first.
  • With the third no, note that my colleague was concerned about overworking a male colleague but expressed no such concern about overworking me. This plainly shows how gendered expectations are about service. Saying no often means pushing against gendered expectations.
  • Also with the third no, note that my colleague asked me why I couldn’t do it, which is actually none of her business, but it’s a trick people use to chisel away at boundaries. Questioning why you can’t do something challenges your notion that you have a right to control how you spend your time and energy.

Saying no is exhausting, but it must be done. Every time I say no, I am normalizing women saying no.

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