I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel discussion some months ago focusing on career development and guidance for young women in the media industry. After the formality of the session was over, I joined one of the tables for some discussion about what was shared through the session and more importantly what the advice practically meant for these women as they looked to implement it in their real lives. As we talked, I was struck at the consistent theme when discussing the ever popular and often mystical – work/life balance. When asked what was getting in the way or what their organisation could do to support them, what I really heard was a desperate need for permission. Permission to leave on time, work more flexibly in whatever manner they desired or simply permission to not check work emails over the weekend or weeknight.
In my experience this need for permission is not shared by our male counterparts. Where women often apply self-imposing unconscious rules, men in stark contrast just go ahead and do, without any consideration to the thought that there was ever a need to ask for permission. I have seen this play out in many different ways. One that has had the biggest impact for me recently was a male partner in a professional services firm who talked about his experience of school ‘pick ups’ and ‘drop offs’, a responsibility he shared evenly with his wife.
‘I don’t give a second thought when leaving the office at 5pm to pick up the kids. My female colleagues on the other hand, talk about feeling guilty, worrying about what clients and colleagues will think.’
Whilst in some circumstances there may be clear and valid reasons for this concern, most of the time when we have encouraged our clients to openly discuss this guilt with their stakeholders no reasons have emerged to justify their original concern.
Communications expert Dr Patty Ann Tublin phrases it well “The fact is, many women ask for permission to succeed in business and men do not”. When an opportunity presents itself, women are slowed down asking “may I,” while “men are vigorously ploughing ahead working on projects and other tasks that will give them both visibility and access to the decision-makers critical for one’s upward mobility”.
So what is it that makes women assume we need to ask permission?
We already know that male and female minds are wired differently. As neurologist and psychologist from the University of California Louann Brizendine explores in “The Female Brain”, we have larger areas of our brains devoted to communication, processing emotions and reading social cues than male brains do.
It is these biological traits that make women feel the need to constantly apologise, seek social approval and ask for permission. While this is not a surprise to learn in itself, if we are more aware of our inherent neurological urges, will we be able to tame these impulses?
Add the ‘good girl’ syndrome to the biology, the urge to want to please others all the time and follow the rules and you have a complex and often unconscious road block.
Constant permission seeking behaviours may limit our ability to achieve goals, build the career we want and live our lives the way we want. For those of us striving for flexibility to achieve our desired work/life balance, constantly asking permission can be a significant barrier to attaining it. While you’re asking to be allowed to do something, your male colleagues may already be doing it.
Sometimes the age-old phrase “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission” would be sound advice. Next time you find yourself looking to someone else to validate your decision or provide permission, stop for a second and instead ask yourself first – do you really need to ask?