There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that states, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” Obviously from the gender pronoun used in this maxim, whoever wrote it never had to deal with the worry that comes with the implications of asking a question as a career woman. Just the very act of raising your hand and trying to get an answer can be an exercise in walking the tightrope between ensuring you understand the task at hand and coming across as a person who asks doesn’t know what they are supposed to be doing or requires too much direction. Leaving many career women to wonder how successful women leaders ask for help.

Often, we find ourselves framing the way our co-workers perceive us. We want to be viewed as strong, capable co-workers. Yet we still need answers and direction. So, as a successful woman leader, how can you balance your need to appear proficient and still gain the knowledge that you need to succeed?

Barriers to Asking for Help: Fact Versus Fiction

Traditionally, women are considered more open when it comes to asking questions. It may be a cliche – and no longer relevant in the age of a GPS-connected device that fits in your pocket – but think back to the classic example of being lost on a road trip. Men typically just keep on driving, sure that they know where they are going or will figure it out along the way. Women, however, are more pragmatic and willing to pull over to ask for directions. 

Both examples illustrate the barriers that keep us from asking questions or seeking advice in the workplace. In the lose-lose situation you need either to waste precious time and energy finding your own path to the answer, or risk appearing less-competent to those around you who expect you to be able to accomplish what is assigned, regardless of the feasibility of the request.

How Successful Women Leaders Ask for Help According to Research

In the example shared above, why do men keep driving to find the right path, while women pull over and find the right path, often more quickly?
According to Shaunti Feldhahn’s book, “The Male Factor,” our male counterparts place a high value on “figuring it out for themselves.” This idea isn’t something the author pulled out of thin air. Instead, this well-researched book is based on a nationwide survey and confidential interviews with more than three thousand men.

The author also discovered that if women want to be successful in male-dominated fields, they are expected to understand the internal male culture, even when it seems completely alien to them. Shaunti also found that men typically view an emotional display as a sign that the person – male or female – can no longer think clearly. By emotion, they don’t just mean crying or nervousness. In this example, emotion can mean any outward display of being unsure, such as – you guessed it – asking a question. What is the reason for this line of thinking? It’s because the male and female brains often perceive things quite differently. Many women can process strong emotions while thinking clearly, which can seem like a foreign concept to the male brain. Because many men do not think in this way, they assume a display of emotion is equivalent to a lack of thought or ability. In short, these men can project their specific point of view onto others as fact.

Conversation Barriers to Asking for Help

Another common cliche comes from male stand-up comedians. A comic may bring up how much his wife talks. Whether or not the jokes are funny, the truth is men and women often view conversations, much like asking questions, quite differently. 

In Deborah Tannen’s book “You Just Don’t Understand,” the author explains that men and women see their dialogue through two very different lenses. Men often view conversations as an opportunity to vie for status by “exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking, or imparting information.”

Women, however, often see conversations as an opportunity to develop richer, relational connections through discovering and sharing mutual experiences. 

How Successful Women Leaders Ask for Help by Creating Connection

 With these disconnects in mind we can discuss how women leaders can avoid pitfalls and be successful when it comes to asking questions. In general, men tend to ask fewer questions in personal conversation and are more open to asking questions in the professional setting, while women tend to ask fewer questions when it comes to their careers and more when they’re speaking one-on-one.

Additionally, men often misinterpret why women ask questions. According to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, women often ask questions to “create a collaborative environment, stimulate an exchange of ideas, discover what’s important, and arrive at a best possible outcome.” For example, when a woman asks, “What do you think?” to a male colleague they aren’t necessarily seeking someone to solve a problem on their behalf. Often the questioner is looking for either agreement or alternate solutions that can help guide her final decision. 

Often, the questions women ask aren’t questions that need an answer but are meant to build consensus, explore all sides of an issue or even to encourage further conversation. Again, because many men are projecting their own point of view, they can interpret these questions as being weak or a sign of indecisiveness. They may be used to simply stating the way they feel or decision they’ve already made, being direct when their requests and waiting to ask for help until they’re overwhelmed. 

How Strong Leaders Frame Their Requests for Help

Research has shown that women tend to ask more questions about assigned tasks and project than their male counterparts. But, as women progress in their careers, they often begin asking fewer questions. Not because they ask for less advice, but because they reframe their questions to exhibit knowledge and insight on the topic to show they are a strong employee and leader. This reframing of questions can help to sidestep the notion that asking questions is a sign of ignorance or perceived weakness. For example, instead of asking “how should I do this,” reframe the question to something more like, “Do you believe X or Y would better better apply this situation? Why is that?” Reframing questions is one strategy successful women leaders use to seek advice and get answers without calling into question their ability or authority. 

Don’t Let Yourself to Be a Barrier

How else do strong leaders ask for help? First, by remembering that being open to admitting they don’t have all the answers. One of the most important parts of self-knowledge and reflection to know when – and how – to ask for assistance. For example, you probably didn’t start your career being great at your job. It often takes years of learning, trial and error, overcoming challenges and hard work to achieve success.
While there is a very real social stigma against asking questions – whether it’s too many of them or knowing the exact time to ask them – not seeking help can be even more disastrous. The unwelcome consequence of not getting the answers or advice you need could delay critical decision-making, which could be interpreted as indecisiveness. 

To ask questions effectively, from a position of strength, consider when, where, and to whom you ask.

The Right Time, Place, and Audience to Ask for Help Successfully

Since 1998, EWF International has been focused on consulting and supporting women in business. Depending on where your career has taken you, EWF is fully prepared to meet you where you are. And, even more importantly, equip and empower you to get where you want to go. We offer exclusive peer advisory groups for women that are already accomplished leaders or have big career ambitions. If you want to be surrounded by a community of like-minded businesswomen ready to help amplify their strengths, this is the place for you.

While women in leadership has increased over the past half-decade, we are still underrepresented at every level. EWF’s Peer Advisory Forums will give you the ability, and safe confidential environment, to ask for help without any negative workplace ramifications. Our peer advisory forum is where you’ll discover the trusted advisors, mentors, and sponsors you’ve been seeking. 

This is how strong leaders ask for help.

For more information on how EWF can help you, fill out your information at and we’ll get in touch with you soon.