Monday, September 8, 2008

Career Advice for Women - That's Also Relevant for Men

An article in last month's New York Times by author Hannah Seligson talks about her recent book “New Girl on the Job: Advice From the Trenches,” which addresses the shock and frustration that Seligson encountered when she first entered the workforce, and realized that the proverbial glass ceiling for working women wasn't so proverbial after all.

In addition to facing some alarming "old boys club" behavior, including seeing more women than men saddled with photocopying and coffee fetching duties, Seligson goes on to say that she found herself getting in the way of her own success. As she says in the article: "I realized that I needed to develop a thick skin, feel comfortable promoting myself, learn how to negotiate, stop being a perfectionist and create a professional network — abilities that men are just more likely to have already."

As a woman in her twenties in the workforce today, her advice resonates strongly with me personally. As a staff member at a career services office, her advice is on target, not just for women at the University of Chicago, but for men as well. The skills Seligson developed to help her succeed as a woman are skills that we all need to find success in the workplace.

Develop a Thick Skin: No one, male or female, likes to be criticized or to have their work critiqued - even if that criticism is presented as being "constructive." Remember the first time you turned in a paper during one of your first year classes, only to get it back covered in red ink from your professor - or a TA? You were probably crushed, especially if you were accustomed to straight A's and the praise of your teachers in high school. However, if you've made it this far and you're looking for an internship or full-time job, odds are you got used to the fact that even your finest paper might have some room for improvement.

Coming to this realization is also necessary in the office - to your new supervisor, it doesn't matter that you graduated from the University of Chicago with a 3.5 GPA - what matters is that your work is up to the standards of the organization that you're interning or working at. This means that, inevitably, you are going to receive criticism from your boss. And depending on your boss and his or her work style, that criticism could come across as pretty harsh. Seligson talks about the many agents who told her she'd never get a book deal (and she clearly proved them wrong).

What's important is to learn to take criticism in the workplace - and not take it personally. When a supervisor tells you that your latest project needs some work - or needs to be completely redone - don't take that as an attack on you as a person, take it as a chance to learn more about what your supervisor is looking for in a finished work project. Believe me, I've cried in the office more times than I'd like to admit - but I've also learned that when my boss asks me to rewrite the brochure content that I just spent three straight days working on, she's not criticizing me as a person - she's trying to teach me to be a better writer. As Seligson says, "I think that in order to break through any kind of glass ceiling, or simply to get through the day, you have to become impervious to the daily gruffness that’s a part of any job." That means putting away the Kleenex and accepting that your work isn't as perfect as you'd like to think it is.

Feel Comfortable Promoting Yourself: This is one area where I've read again and again that men are better at this than women - and I still struggle to promote myself at work without sounding cocky. So guys, if you've already got this down, read on - but if you've ever felt the need to be modest in the workplace, now's the time to stop feeling that way. There have been plenty of times when a co-worker has complimented my work and I've said "It was nothing." Or, "I really didn't really do much for this project." No more - when someone praises my work, I will take credit! Traditional gender roles might tell us that women should be more demure, but put the gender bias aside. Whether you identify as male or female, when someone compliments your work, say something along the lines of "Thank you. It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed working on the project." If a supervisor compliments your work, it might be the perfect opportunity to say "Thank you. I really enjoyed this project - and I'd like to take on more projects like this in the future."

Learn How to Negotiate: This is a no-brainer, right? Well, maybe - but if you're just entering the workforce, you may not know how much room for negotiation you have. Even in a tough economic market, there's room for negotiation in any job - just be sure you are professional about it (that means no temper tantrums when the boss tells you that he appreciates your request, but that this is not the time for a raise). This is prime time for students to turn internships into offers, so if you have questions about negotiating the terms of the offer, please contact CAPS BEFORE you accept. Our staff can help you consider if an offer is right for you - and what terms are worth negotiating given your individual situation.

Stop Being a Perfectionist: This one is really tough for me to swallow. Perfectionism is one of my greatest strengths - and it can also be one of my greatest weaknesses. Seligson states, "Women, I have found, can let perfectionism stop them from speaking up or taking risks." The fear comes from the possibility of being told "no" - something that tends to rattle men less. But again, regardless of your gender, the advice is still sound: don't be afraid to make a suggestion or ask a question in the workplace, just because the idea isn't perfect or because you haven't thought out all the details.

Create a Professional Network: Just when you thought you had escaped from that monster networking, here it is once again (get used to it - I will tell you again and again how important networking is, regardless of if you're a man or a woman). According to Seligson, men may find networking easier to do since they can bond with the men in the office getting a beer after work. While this may be true in some cases, this is probably her greatest generalization in the article. After all, this in the University of Chicago, and we all know that not everyone here is interested in beer, or another traditionally male interest area, sports - and there is nothing wrong with that. With that said, Seligson's suggestion for creating dialogue with a co-worker or supervisor is great - that is, DON'T ask someone to be your mentor outright, but DO ask someone for their feedback or ideas about a particular project. Trust me, everyone like to feel that their opinion is valued, so it can be an easy way to break the ice with a co-worker that you admire - a simple "Do you have five minutes to go over this project with me? I'm really interested in your feedback," can open the door for receiving more professional advice over time.

One last comment, and this one IS for the women reading:

Seligson says, "The American Association of University Women found that men who are a year out of college make 20 percent more in weekly pay than their female co-workers do. Why? Because my friend and scores of other young men understand the central tenet of a bigger paycheck: ask and you shall receive."

Like Seligson, this stat appalls me - and has me thinking about past career moves where I didn't ask for a salary increase when I should have. The idea of asking for more money again and again is a scary one - no one likes to be thought of as pushy - but it's clear that women need to learn how to make those requests, and keep making those requests over time.

For advice on negotiating salaries, and much more, make an appointment with CAPS by calling (773) 702 - 7040. You can also check out the CAPS' handout about evaluating and negotiating a job offer.

Questions, comments, advice and feedback? Post it all here.


Unknown said...

There are obvious differences from women and men in the workplace and I do agree that most of the advice here can be given to either a man or a woman. In order to be successful at your job, I think it is important to follow these guidelines. I work at a staffing company in Boston, Hollister Staffing ( and am so happy I came across the post, I can't wait to share it with some of my clients who I think will really enjoy it. Thank you for sharing this!

Unknown said...

I think these advices are very helpful for the both women and the men because these points are so beneficial for the career!
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