Distinguished Essay – Col Naomi Mercer

Lieutenant Colonel Naomi Mercer was selected for the Distinguished Essay Award. 

Lieutenant Colonel Naomi Mercer is the Chief of Command Policy in the Directorate of Military Personnel Management, for the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, Department of the Army.  Her portfolio includes: the Soldier 2020 (Gender Integration) and the religious accommodation programs.  She earned a doctorate in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of the 2015 book, Toward Utopia, which explores feminist science fiction writers’ responses to religious fundamentalism, and the TedEd script for “The Handmaid’s Tale” animated short.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, teenage daughter, and two demanding cats.

The winning essay, “Make the Ask,” is published here:

Research shows that women do not consider running for political office until someone asks them to do it. Women do not consider pursuing a promotion until someone tells them they should put their name in. Women do not think they can fill a more challenging leadership role at work or in their community until another leader asks them. Women do not ask each other for business deals because they are afraid of ruining their friendships. Rather, women frequently take on behind the scenes roles of their own initiative and develop themselves quietly. Unlike men, who publicly put themselves forward and fail upward with regularity, women need to be asked.

If that’s the case, then we as professional women must make “the ask.” We are not obligated to say yes when someone asks us to take on a task for which we are not suited or no one else is willing to do. However, if we don’t ask other women to take on the stretch roles, to lead the committees, to run for office, how much potential is then left untapped?

I have lately cultivated a habit of asking women who are more senior to me what their next challenge will be and not if they plan to pursue it, but when. I have frequently responded to former students in the affirmative that I would write a recommendation for their fellowships and graduate programs. But, like many other women, I find asking others for help or support on my own behalf more difficult. I’m fairly certain that other women have hesitated to ask me for some small favor that I could easily provide.

When we make the ask, we may be asking other women to put themselves forward in ways that are scary and outside their comfort zones. Yet in these challenges women can grow and can affect great change for themselves, their families, and their communities. We owe it to ourselves to make the ask on our own behalf, despite our discomfort. We owe it to other women to plant the seed that they can and should step out of their comfort zones.

When I recently asked a retiring colonel if she planned to run for office: she said yes. After hearing a new master’s degree graduate’s passion for an inner city project, I asked if she would pursue it for a doctorate she had not completely decided upon: she said yes. A protégé asked me if I would write a letter of recommendation for her: I said yes. An organization I joined less than two years before asked me to join their board of directors: I said yes. I asked a senior executive service woman in my organization if she would look over my 13-page specialized qualifications resume: she said yes. Make the ask.

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