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Saying Yes to Saying No – A Challenge for 2021

Written By: Nishanthini

Edited by: Rachel Kuo

Cover Illustration by: Gabby Tan


Saying no is a fundamental part of standing up for ourselves. However, most of us struggle with it for a range of reasons.

For people held to a higher standard of deference, the fear of saying no is fraught with further complications.

Minority women are burdened by the “docility myth”; the idea that we should be more subservient (docile) than we are. A study by the American Psychological Association showed that 34% of Asian American women (citizens or non-citizens with origins from the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent) reported being stereotyped as “submissive or passive”. In this article by the BBC, Asian American women reported being perceived as “disrespectful” for pushing back; even being met with “surprise or retaliation” when speaking out. Any assertion of dominance in the workplace is interpreted as “surprising and threatening” by majority-race colleagues. For minority women, the fear of standing up for themselves by saying no is exacerbated by the possibility of disproportionately severe consequences.

Image courtesy of American Psychological Association

Ethnic minorities in Singapore face similar race-based stereotypes. A 2019 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies and revealed that 60% of Malays and 56% of Indians felt discriminated against in the workplace, and these numbers are on the rise. 32% of survey respondents also said that Malays have to work harder than people of other races in order to reach the top, compared to 27% for Indians and 14% for Chinese.

Image courtesy of Straits Times Graphics (Information from Institute of Policy Studies)

These findings tell us that females and ethnic minorities in majority-male or predominantly majority-race environments are held to higher standards of obedience and subservience. As a result, even saying the word no can involve unimaginable amounts of emotional labour for these groups.

First, there’s the decision about whether saying no will be worth the trouble. Then, there’s deciding how to let the other person down in a way that doesn’t provoke “surprise or retaliation”. There’s also the ‘post-no anxiety’.

What do they think of me now?

Did I make a mistake?

Why didn’t I do it?

Often, the guilt of saying no pressures us to go back on our word. The no becomes a half-no, or worse, a yes. That isn't a real compromise.

To avoid this anxiety-ridden exercise, many of us say yes to things we don’t want to do or don’t have the capacity to do.

As a minority woman, I understand the challenges that come with saying no. In majority-male and predominantly majority-race settings, I’ve been labelled inflexible and defensive despite being as accommodating as everyone else. Those responsible were unaware of their own unconscious biases. When their expectation was for me to remain silent and yielding, any counter-response would have been perceived as a counter-attack.

Several friends of mine, who are minority women, have also experienced harassment in the workplace, simply for standing their ground. By “standing their ground”, I’m referring to the act of making their personal boundaries clear or following standard workplace protocol and disallowing unreasonable exceptions. In most cases, the perpetrators (usually heterosexual, cis-male and majority-race) were set straight by higher management. However, there are still too many instances of the victim being blamed. I attribute this to the pervasiveness of the “docility myth” in various forms.

We’ve established that saying no isn’t easy, especially for females and ethnic minorities. Still, you should do it, and more often. The usual reasons are still valid. Not taking enough time to recharge can leave us feeling frustrated and resentful. There may be financial consequences to giving in if money is involved. By putting ourselves first, we have more of ourselves to give to others. There is nothing wrong with these reasons, but there is a much stronger one out there:

The world needs to value women as much as it values men.

On its blog, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that up to 50% of the world’s work is unpaid, and the bulk of that unpaid work is done by women. Depending on the country in question, the economic value of unpaid work can be up to 60% of GDP. The definition of unpaid work includes domestic labour (cooking, cleaning etc.) and caregiving (child-rearing or caring for the elderly). These duties are fundamental to keeping families and communities running. These are also duties that society traditionally attributes to women.

As Jenny Odell wrote in “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”, our modern, capitalist system dictates that the only things of value are the things that can be monetised. Because domestic labour and caregiving don’t directly translate to dollars and cents, these duties (and the time spent doing them) are seen as being of lesser worth.

Take the five most-underpaid professions in Singapore. Of the five, four are overwhelmingly-female. These four professions (Room Attendant, Nail Technician, Service Crew, Cleaner) expect employees to perform “feminine” duties like cleaning and serving, a role that’s similar to caregiving. If we valued women’s work more, people in these groups would be paid much higher wages.

How does race come into the picture? Well, immigrants from poorer countries make up the majority of employees in all five professions.

The one other profession in this list, “Construction Worker”, is an outlier because it is significantly more labour-intensive than the other four. The majority of employees in this profession are men, most of whom are immigrants.

Gender pay inequalities remain in white-collar environments. A 2019 Glassdoor survey revealed that women are paid about 13% less than men in Singapore. The average annual base salary of a woman was almost $10,000 lower than that of a man. In a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) study, the median salary for a Singaporean woman was 16.3% lower than that of a man in 2018. This imbalance is partly due to an overrepresentation of women in lower-paying jobs, and an overrepresentation of men in higher-paying ones. After accounting for factors like sector, profession, age and education, the adjusted gender pay gap is 6%. Researchers believe that gender imbalances in parenting are the main cause of this gap. According to the MOM study, women are more likely to face obstacles in “work experience and career progression” due to caregiving and child-rearing responsibilities – societal expectations mean that the pressure to perform these duties is disproportionately-heavy on women.

Image courtesy of NBC News

In my opinion, the ultimate objective should be to transcend gender roles, recognise the importance of all work (paid or unpaid) and give adequate compensation as deserved. Both men and women expend time and energy to keep communities running. However, the current expectation is for women to do it for far less than men, and in spite of our own needs.

By saying yes to things that we don’t want to do, or don’t have the capacity to do, we uphold a system that perpetuates inequality. By saying no more often, we train the people around us to recognise our intrinsic value, as well as the value of our time and energy.

Consequently, we teach them to recognise the worth of “feminine” duties like cooking, cleaning and caregiving. These responsibilities are still primarily shouldered by women, and that dynamic has to change.

Earlier in this article, I related some of my struggles with saying no. Learning to say no is a process, and there is a lot of helpful literature out there (this is an excellent article from the Harvard Business Review on saying no in the workplace). Drawing your boundaries can be tiring, and not everyone will react well. However, it’s worth the trouble because our time and energy matter. We matter.

I don’t mean to justify lazing around (excessively) or living a purposeless existence.

Image courtesy of James Yang

Saying no more often can be the key to living a more purposeful life. When you say no to things that don’t matter, you give yourself room to focus on the things that do.

For me, my lived experience expresses the triumph that is possible from learning to say no. I have faced setbacks, but now, I also have a degree from a good university, an amazing job with supportive mentors, a loving relationship and an enduring circle of friends and family. Sometimes, my boundaries are crossed, but any compromise is a real compromise – this is the result of saying no to the things that don’t serve me, because saying no to one thing can be a yes to something better.

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