Amy Tenbrink: When I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy, I wanted to conquer and rule it

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Amy Tenbrink, who will lead the career development workshop “Negotiating Your Professional Life” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.


FAYE BI: You’re immensely accomplished in your professional world, currently serving as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel–Revenue and Business Development for a major media company, and before that negotiating billion-dollar deals for one of the country’s largest television providers. (I’ve heard horror stories about your leaving for work Tuesday morning and not coming home until Friday!) How did you get here? What do you love most about your job—and what challenges have you faced?

Amy Tenbrink

AMY: I’m going to give you this answer and then I’m going to explain that, yes, I know all the reasons that this answer sucks.

How did I get here? I do the work. If you want to be undeniably successful at something—including sitting on the bleeding edge of media industry strategy and negotiating mind-bogglingly large deals—you have to do the work. You can’t miss opportunities, macro opportunities like jobs or big projects or micro opportunities like chances to impress a CEO or change the course of a negotiation, because you’re not willing to do the work. And that means late nights and weekends, certainly, but it also means working when you’re exhausted or when you’ve been yelled at or when it takes three times as long to teach someone else to do it as it would have taken to just do it yourself. It means doing the work when the work is boring or you hate the person sitting across from you at a negotiating table or you’re supposed to be having dinner with a friend whom you’ve already blown off four times. You do the damned work. To the best of your ability. Every time. No excuses.

And yes, that sucks. I know every reason that that sucks because today’s corporate culture is built for (male) executives who have (female) spouses at home managing the ranch, so they have the luxury of not ever having to worry about groceries or report cards or getting the house painted. I know every reason that that sucks as a woman, not only because for so many reasons we rarely have that particular luxury, but because we’re “not tough enough for business” (a CEO of mine once said that, honest to God) and sometimes approach problems with a lure rather than a hammer and don’t look like corporate America’s very homogeneous idea of “success.” I can only imagine the many, many reasons that that sucks as a person of color or an LGBTQIA+ person or a person with a disability. I have lived that day where you learn that the meritocracy is a myth (the day you realize you’ll never make a promotion, even though you’re clearly better at this than every man who has ever sat in that same chair with a better title than yours). I have lived that day where you realize that you have to work twice as hard and show up three times as prepared and be four times as impressive as a man in order to even enter the same playing field (the day I realized that my male business counterpart with the same title who worked a paltry seven hours a day made 50% more than I). I know.

And I know what I’ve sacrificed to do this. I’ve never really cared about marriage and kids, but if you do, as a woman, I don’t know how you even begin to balance that with being a corporate executive in America, at least not without outsourcing your personal life, which also sucks. I worked, minimum, 70 hours a week for more than a decade. I currently travel about 40% of the time. I live in hotels and airports and on a laptop and with my cellphone. And this works for me because I love what I do, and I don’t care about marriage or kids, and my fish can feed themselves (good job, fish!)—but I can easily see that I’m the exception, never the rule.

But even through all of that. Even through a thousand things that weren’t fair and weren’t just and were downright ignorant or absurd or offensive, I did the work, every day, no excuses. Because in any job, in any area, you make a daily estimation of how much work you’re willing and able to do for that job. And my answer, every time, was “a damn lot.” And that’s how you become a media company executive in America in 2019.

So given all of that, you’d hope that I love what I do, right? I do. I’m relentless, I’m ambitious, I’m brilliant, and I have a hard-wired need for a daily dose of conflict. What I do puts me in the same room with other relentless, ambitious, brilliant people. What I do takes my whole brain and sometimes parts of my brain that I didn’t even know I had. What I do gives me a quotidian battlefield of negotiations and contracts and consumer strategies. If you’re going to do something 70, 80, sometimes 100 hours a week, by God, you’d better love it. Not all of it, but an awful lot of it. And I do.


FAYE: What advice would you give young negotiators or anyone else entering a challenging corporate field? How about for all those young female professionals who are called bossy, pushy, or aggressive?

AMY: Two things. Two impossible, non-negotiable things.

First, become comfortable being uncomfortable, and even more than that, become comfortable making other people uncomfortable. Many people, but especially women, are taught an obligation of hospitality, one that applies not only in your home, but in every interaction that you have. We are expected to make people feel comfortable. We are instructed to please, to chitchat away awkward pauses, to always find the right thing to say to make the other person happy.

There is a time and a place for that. Some of those times and places are even at work. But by definition, women’s ambition makes people uncomfortable. Women’s demands make people uncomfortable. Every time I ask for equal pay at work, everyone is tharn in their discomfort. They will assuredly try to make this about you and how if you were just more polite or more patient or more whatever, the meritocracy would work for you in the end. That is bullshit. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your ambition, your assertiveness, and your self-respect, I recommend that you start getting comfortable with the idea that you will sometimes make any number of people (starting with your boss) very uncomfortable. Which is not to say that you have to go into every room with a figurative sword (or a literal one), but that you can, and perhaps should, let those awkward pauses linger, that you shouldn’t mask your ambition, that you should bring up pay disparities, and that you should mention that you’ve done more than enough to earn more time in the CEO’s office. Because the meritocracy is nothing more than a tool of the patriarchy meant to make you feel uncomfortable for being bossy, pushy, or aggressive.

Second, now that we’ve talked about doing the work, let’s talk about what work that actually means. Because for all that women and people with other marginalized identities have to work exponentially hard to end up in the same place as cisgendered, heterosexual, white men, we also spend a lot of time doing work that no one cares about. Or that perhaps people care about, but that we’re certainly not getting paid to do.

Planning team birthday parties. Taking meeting notes. Listening to your (usually male) colleagues complain about their bosses (or their wives). These are easy things to understand: You’re (probably) not paid to be social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst. If your company wants these things done, they could, in fact, hire a social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst to do them. They are not paying you to do them—so do not do them.

Somewhat harder is the notion that—especially for people who work higher, further, faster, baby—you’re probably exceeding your boss’s expectations. And there’s some value there, at least in earning a reputation as someone who exceeds expectations. But just like you aren’t getting paid to plan birthday parties, you’re also not getting paid for the difference between your boss’s expectations and your higher expectations of yourself. In a utopia, the amount of time that we spend on a task would line up perfectly with the value of that task to the company. For a frustratingly easy example, I have a professional colleague who recently negotiated a promotion, and as part of that negotiation, she asked her company to assign pieces of her salary to each of her buckets of responsibility. The company assigned—I kid you not—$0 to one particular bucket. She assures me that, even though that bucket remains in her job description, she will spend 0 minutes doing any of those tasks. Things are so rarely that clear, but to maximize your value to your company, without spending every waking moment working, spend some time figuring out how to align your boss’s valuation of each project with the time that you spend on those projects. It’s hard, but ultimately, you’ll be much happier and much more successful for it.


FAYE: You have several bodies of professional work: corporate attorney, media executive, non-profit chief executive officer, and Sirens chair. All of these are hard science: law, budgets, strategy, and the like. How does fantasy literature fit into what you do 100 hours a week?

AMY: It’s revolutionary. It’s aspirational. It’s necessary.

I grew up in the upper Midwest, learning all the skills necessary to be a housewife. I cook, I clean, I sew, I hostess. I do most of these things badly, and most of them with a bad attitude, much to my matriarchal family’s dismay because, for all their belief that the women of our family are invincible, our needles are our swords and our cakes are our shields and I never feel like a bigger failure than when my house is a disaster.

And I went from that to corporate America, which is still run, every day, in every way, by the patriarchy. I spent the first 15 years of my career thinking that I could rule that world as is, if only I worked hard enough. I have spent the last five years with the increasingly ugly realization that no part of that world works for me or anyone else with a marginalized identity.

I want a revolution. I want to see what the world looks like when it’s run by women and people of color and LGBTQIA+ folks and people with disabilities. I want to see worlds that either topple the patriarchy or are so far beyond patriarchal rule that they can grapple with other issues. My quotidian reality is so firmly entrenched in a power system that doesn’t work for me that I need my reading to be something revolutionary, something aspirational, something so untethered from our daily notion of reality that authors and readers alike can dream big and imagine something different, something just, something worthy.

The best opportunity of speculative fiction, in my proverbial book, is to write those worlds, those power structures, those societies. And again in my book, the best speculative fiction does.


FAYE: You’ve mentioned that there’s a subgenre of adult fantasy about lawyers, accountants, and negotiators. What makes this sort of fantasy successful for you? What about these books get law, negotiation, or strategy particularly right?

AMY: One of my great loves in fantasy literature—and relatedly, one of my never-ending disappointments—is revolution books. I love a good revolution! But I know enough about legal structures and economics and strategy to be able to spot, immediately and with little patience, what these books gloss over or even get wrong. I’ve been known to yell about supply lines and crop burnings and hyperinflation at Sirens.

But sometimes, a book gets what I do really, really right—and when it does, I’m a fangirl. So rather than wax poetic for days, let’s focus on three authors whose characters do what I do in speculative spaces and do it really, really well.

Yoon Ha Lee (Conservation of Shadows, Ninefox Gambit) spends a lot of time observing people. He’s never told me this, but he doesn’t have to, because I’ve read his work. The best negotiators are, first, observers. After all, the point of a negotiation is to get someone else to do what you want them to do—and the most effective way to do that is to morph into the version of yourself that will be more convincing to them. Some days you’re a beauty; some days you’re a beast. But to figure out if you should be beauty, beast, buffoon, or bitch, you have to figure out the person sitting across from you. This is basic human interaction, but it’s almost impossible to get right, at least in a way that feels right to a negotiator. We live, after all, in the spaces between words, the eye twitches, the flushes, the reluctant smiles. But Yoon gets it right, every time, not only in his negotiation sequences, but in his strategies, his tactics, his conversations. He establishes his characters with an eye toward how his other characters will manipulate them later on. His books ring true to a negotiator because he gives a negotiator-reader the details you need to see the tactics, the strategy, and the manipulation play out. It’s one thing for an author to tell a reader a character has been manipulated; it’s another thing entirely for an author to give you a critical detail about a character’s personality in a casual conversation on page 24, only to have someone exploit that trait 200 pages later. To a negotiator and a strategist, his books are simply true in a way that few authors can manage.

K.B. Wagers (Behind the Throne) writes indomitable women. But truly, a lot of people write indomitable women. What’s rare about Katy’s women is that their women know that they’re indomitable, powerful women and they negotiate, strategize, and lead like they are. Hail’s aggression, in particular, is a thing of beauty, her violence even more so. She’s willing to use all the tactics a man in her position would use—and Katy does us all the favor of writing this like it’s no big deal. Hail bluffs, she threatens, she advances, sometimes she breaks a bone or two. And that’s glorious, the fact that Hail gets to do this and it only enhances her reputation—because I know what those tactics inevitably do to the tactics of our real-world female negotiators. But Hail’s also willing to play against type, to use patriarchal stereotypes and expectations as a weapon, an infiltration, and Katy is willing to break down what that means and how that works in a way that inevitably demonstrates the idiocy of the patriarchy. Long live Hail, a female negotiator we should all aspire to. I’m going to steal her tactics.

Fonda Lee (Jade City) writes indomitable women, too, but in a world that—at least in the first book in her Green Bone Saga series—feels a lot like my corporate America. It’s very patriarchal, it’s very toxic, it’s very violent. Lee’s world is, in so many ways, my world—and she writes these women who navigate this world with grace, with violence, and with immense power. Ayt Madashi, more than any other character in speculative fiction, is who twentysomething me wanted to grow up to be. Back when I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy and I wanted to conquer it and then rule it. SPOILER: Reading about Mada going from fucking owning Hilo in a negotiating room to flipping tactics entirely and recruiting Shae? That’s the sort of facility and skill and power I aspired to—and frankly, that I still aspire to. Mada’s power is based on brilliance, strategy, and yes, aggression, and as a negotiator, I love her for every minute of it.


FAYE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Negotiating Your Professional Life” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

AMY: We all, every day, end up negotiating lots of things, whether we realize it or not, whether we want it or not. Sometimes it’s as simple as whether we volunteer to take notes during meetings. Sometimes it’s more complicated, like negotiating for a raise. Sometimes it’s literally sitting down across the table from someone to negotiate a contract. But whether you realize it or not, and whether you want it or not, people are negotiating with you. So I’m going to share some of what I do, and the tactics and strategies that I use, to help people more actively manage those daily negotiations. Schools don’t teach this, but by God, they should.

So we’re going to do some workshopping. Negotiation is, fundamentally, about a third preparation, a third creativity, and a third tactics. We’re going to discuss what that preparation might look like. Is it research? Is it practicing what you want to say? Is it gearing up to be uncomfortable? Then we’ll work though some exercises on creativity in negotiations. The best negotiators are able to come up with innovative solutions to impasses. If your company can’t offer you the salary you want, is more vacation time a good compromise? Is hiring a junior person an option?

Then we’re going to talk tactics. We’re going to see what awkward pauses actually feel like. We’re going to talk about personal space. We’re going to use smiles and knowledge as weapons.

Come prepared to work! But also come prepared to gain a much greater understanding of how the world around you, especially in your professional life, actually works—and how you can more successfully navigate that.


FAYE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

AMY: As women, we think we’re invincible. I think we think we have to be invincible. That’s the great con of the meritocracy, right? If you’re just smart enough and you work hard enough, you’ll succeed. Which, of course, means that if you don’t succeed, you’re just not doing enough.

Which works on us because our foremothers spent sunrise to sunset demonstrating their love through work. They cleaned house and baked bread and darned socks and you knew your mom really loved you because she took care of you. Not because she was amazing and powerful and skilled and still wanted to hang out with you. Because she took care of you.

Hallie Tibbetts, my best friend, is a magnificent woman. She’s been a music teacher and a non-profit professional, she co-founded Narrate Conferences with me 13 years ago and Sirens 11 years ago, and she is now an editor of books for children and teens. She is immensely brilliant and immensely accomplished and I say this both because she is, but also because God knows, I wouldn’t have listened to her if she weren’t.

But she taught me to forgive myself. She taught me that, if I were as forgiving of myself as I am of others, I would be a much happier person. She taught me that, if I hate a book, I get to bail after 50 pages, rather than finishing it out of some ridiculous idea that I’d fail the book if I didn’t. She taught me that sometimes “tomorrow,” or “next week,” or “fucking never” are all acceptable answers, not failures. She taught me that I am fucking extraordinary and that I am not letting myself down when I don’t do what I set out to do if it no longer makes sense or it’s a waste of time or it doesn’t fucking need to be done.

And because of that, because of all that work that she did, I was able to believe a Fortune 50 company’s negotiators when they called me a superhero in the middle of a negotiation and offered me a job. Or when my boss finally convinced me that I didn’t have to be certain before I spoke up. Or when I read a book about a “budget of fucks” and it was an epiphany. Or when I’m able to read 150 books a year because I don’t have to finish them if I don’t like them.

Because of her, I am much smarter, much happier, and much, much more disciplined in where I expend my time and energy.

Everyone needs someone in their life who speaks truth to your power. For me, Hallie is that person. Also, she is good at cuddles even though cuddling me is something like cuddling a grumpy cactus.

Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.


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