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5 scenarios where you need help at work, and how to ask: part 1

November 9th, 2010     by Emma Woolley     Comments

lighting department stenographers, 1935 Seattle Municipal Archives

The first installment of a three-part post on navigating office peccadillos so you can maintain your dignity, uphold your feminism, and get the job done.

At the end of August, you might’ve caught the article “Where Are The Ladies At? 18 Reasons Your Company Might Be A Sausagefest” on The Frisky. In her post, former HuffPo blog editor, Jessica Wakeman tackles a controversial piece in the Wall Street Journal about why so few women are behind tech startups, and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington’s response to the that article. Like most potentially well-meaning-but-entitled people who are made to confront privilege and inequity they’d rather ignore, Arrington’s defensiveness results in him all but saying “get better at what you do, ladies.” Wakeman, cutting him more slack than Cynara will, notes that the reasons women are not fairly represented in certain industries vary from office to office. She concludes with a distressingly accurate list of why women fare better in some industries or workplaces than others. To wit:

“14. … women who have infiltrated the male-dominated field and and voice feminist opinions about the lack of other women are pigeonholed as castrating ball-busters.”

Another one that particularly struck both of us:

“17. … women who are confused or need help are seen as incapable, while men who need the same thing are just seen as needing more tutoring and guidance.”

As young women, the simple task of asking for help can be freighted with negative consequences—especially if you work in a place where the Boss Man or your supervisor rose through the ranks in a male-dominated environment.

Here at Shameless at Work, we’ve created our own list of 5 situations where you might need help, and offer advice—gathered from our own experience and that of a selection of our colleagues—on how get the help you need.

1. Your boss is using jargon that you don’t understand.

Scenario: You’ve just showed up at your first “big girl” job. It’s the first week and you’re already having to remember the names of 40 new people, learn new practices, familiarize yourself with the office culture and do the work. You’re having a meeting with your bosses and they’re tossing around terms like “KPIs” and “bandwidth”; you have no idea what anyone is talking about.

This is not a problem that’s exclusive to women (certainly workers who have mother tongues other than the language of the workplace or who come from other industries can be alientated by workplace jargon, too) but certainly, women can feel more intimidated by asking “dumb questions.” For fear of looking clueless, we’ve sometimes kept silent and resorted to a few Google searches after the fact. The effectiveness of this fake-until-you-can-search-it solution is, of course, inversely proportional to how creative your boss is with their use and interpretation of industry terms. (Cynara once had a supervisor who used the words “bouffant” and “buffet” interchangeably, much to the confusion of the staff who’d asked her how she wanted the upcoming board meeting catered, and received a one-word email about a popular 60s hairstyle in reply). The bottom line is no one needs to feel like they’re out of the loop in regards to projects or tasks they’re involved in, and it’s better for you and your boss for you to grasp exactly what it is you’re supposed to be doing and when you’re supposed to be doing it.

The way to deal with a situation in which your boss is assigning you work and you are not clear on just what exactly that work is: speak up. Rather than demonstrating “weakness,” asking questions shows that you’re engaged and ready to learn. (If you already knew everything, you’d be CEO, right? Everyone starts somewhere.) Remember that trainers/bosses are fallible humans and may not remember exactly what it was like to be a trainee since operations have become second nature to them. If they forget to explain a procedure or are using terms you don’t understand, there is nothing wrong with asking for clarification, or requesting them to break down, in plain language, the particulars of what they need you to accomplish. Your supervisors and colleagues will recognize that you’re new to the job, and you need support to get started. Work, after all, is what they hired you do and it’s directly relevant to their interests for you to succeed in your new position.

Point your internet here tomorrow for part 2, where we discuss adapting to new technology and how to amend on-the-job errors.

Tags: on the job

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