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Women’s problem with ‘asking’ – Tiara Syndrome and beyond.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

Like much of the female population, I’ve been brought up a Good Girl. The message has been this:

  • ALWAYS say your pleases & thank yous
  • ALWAYS be grateful for what you’re offered
  • NEVER ask for more
  • ALWAYS work hard and some day will notice you and reward you

This is Tiara Syndrome, coined by Carol Frohlinger & Deborah Kolb in Her Place at the table and popularised in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. It’s the tendency to get your head down and do your job, expecting that one day someone will pop a tiara on your head, tell you’re a very good girl and that because you’re so wonderful, you’re the one who gets to marry Prince Charming (or get the promotion, or get the massive bonus, etc).

Well, what most of us have figured out by now, is that life is not a fairy tale. Prince Charming is not coming.

Or if Prince Charming is coming, he ain’t giving you a tiara, he’s nicking off with the credit for your work.

At least 2/3 of the professional women I’ve asked (in not very scientific polls) have experienced men taking the credit for something they’ve done.

To me, the solution to Tiara Syndrome is to stop waiting and to start asking for what we want, whether that’s pay, recognition, promotion, visibility or the last chocolate brownie.

Prince Charming is quite happy to ask, he believes in himself and he couldn’t possibly get crushed by a rejection. He asks out of habit because he sees his peers doing it. He assumes the whole kingdom wants to marry him. And he’s charming, so he’ll most likely get precisely what he asks for.

So… ask for what you want. Simple? Not for me.

Being a socialised good girl princess, I feel a little vomit rising in my throat at the very thought of asking for something.

  • Asking for help;
  • Asking for that big speaking opportunity;
  • Asking for a colleague to try again and try harder;
  • Asking my PA to schedule me an afternoon off;
  • Asking for mentorship without giving something in return;
  • Asking my absolute girl crush to work with me…

Yuck, yuck, yuck!

And I’m not the only one. I recently asked people to nominate inspiring female leaders to attend a big women’s event I’m running at the House of Commons – the Game Changer’s Summit. There were good chunks of my network of incredible women who didn’t put themselves forward.

When I asked them why they hadn’t put their name forward they said:

  • It would have been selfish. If I put myself forward, I’d be taking away from someone else who need it more;
  • I’m not good enough. It’s arrogant to even think I could be ‘inspiring’;
  • What if I asked and you said ‘no’?
  • It didn’t even occur to me to self-nominate – I didn’t know that was a thing you could do.

The good news is that there ARE ladies who ask. I’ve been on the receiving end of female leaders directly asking me “Can I host the Game Changers Summit with you?”, “Can I work for you?” or “Can you mentor me?

Whilst my answer cannot always be ‘yes,’ I admire every ask.

And when I asked the ‘Askers’ how they do it, they told me:

  • If I’m interested in something, I ask as a rule. It shows I support and care about that thing.
  • I have to put my hand up and then think later about what I’m doing – it’s a reflex I’ve forced myself to develop.
  • I ask myself, ‘Who do I know who could do this better?’ Honestly, the answer is usually, ‘Nobody!
  • I think of myself as a sales person, that whenever I get a ‘No’ I must be closer to getting a ‘Yes’.
  • I don’t take it too seriously – I ask, but I’m not attached to the outcome. It helps me laugh at myself.
  • When I’m shy of asking for myself, I ask someone else to put me forward – it’s still asking, but less risky.

What strikes me about each of these ladies is that they manage to do a classically male thing – asking – in a way that feels authentic, feminine and friendly. They’re not pushy, rude or ungrateful in their way of asking. In fact, they make asking a very natural thing.

I still have a rubbish relationship with asking, but I’m working on it. And it’s great to know that there are female role models out there who I can take inspiration from.

And you? Got an Asking strategy you can share?

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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