May 14, 2014
As I write this, the lyrics to the Britney Spears song “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” run through my head. In this song, Spears admits that she is at the “in-between” phase of her life. She has seen enough that she is no longer a girl, but she realizes that she still has a ways to go before she can consider herself a full-fledged woman.
Having entered the job market more than a decade ago, I also feel like I’m at the “in-between” phase of my professional life. I feel like I’ve grown a lot—not just as a worker but as a female worker, a circumstance that brings with it unique challenges. “I’m not a new professional, not yet an executive,” and I have some thoughts to share from this vantage point of my unfinished journey. I hope some of these points are helpful to female job-seekers just starting out.
Don’t get pigeonholed into a role that you don’t want
I was intrigued when Susan, a director on my team, said, “When my little sisters started looking for jobs, I told them not to take an admin job and hope to change it into a marketing role—even if the hiring company told them it was a possibility. I think that many times when a young female is in an admin role it is hard to break out of it. If you want to be an admin, that’s fine. But as a stepping-stone to something else, it’s not a good idea.”
It’s a sentiment I share. In my first post-college job, I was essentially an administrative aid to a department of market analysts. I filled the role after the previous admin, a male, was promoted to analyst. “We should give you more to do,” his superiors told him. Though I worked hard and felt that I had the skills for an analyst position, a promotion was never discussed, and I left the company after two years. I searched for administrative roles, believing it was the best I was capable of.
I don’t mean to disparage administrative roles. Also, there are probably many reasons why I wasn’t promoted. However, I think the professional impasse was largely because I was female. It didn’t seem “strange” for me to be in an administrative role and have no one actively offer me “more to do.” I didn’t request more challenging work, which means no one knew that I wanted more responsibility. My point is: you should be open about your aspirations, and if you find that your current situation will not allow you to make the progress that you desire, seek out something that will.
Don’t be that girl
I worked at Google when Sheryl Sandberg was vice president of the online sales organization. She is now COO of Facebook and the author of “Lean In,” a bestselling book that offers young women professional advice based on her personal experiences.
When my former colleagues and I reminisce about that period of our lives, we always repeat verbatim Sheryl’s advice to the female workforce in advance of company events, such as the company ski trip. Knowing that these events were alcohol-filled opportunities to make a mess of one’s reputation, she would always advise: Don’t be that girl. The damage done from personal indiscretions is always worse for females. You have to be more responsible about what you do and display greater control about what you allow colleagues to witness when you’re in a work setting.
Be cautious about the intentions of male colleagues
I don’t want to come across as alarmist, but I feel strongly that the workplace can be a minefield for females, particularly those who are young and naive. Even today, 46 percent of women believe they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work. I’m not saying that females should avoid interacting with males or be skeptical of every kind gesture. Male coworkers can be great friends and mentors. I think it’s important to be mindful of why a male colleague is choosing to become close. Trust your gut and, if necessary, escalate your concerns if things become uncomfortable and unprofessional.
If you’re outnumbered, you have to rise above it
As I have advanced, I’ve sometimes found myself one of a few or, at times, the lone female in the group. In business school, males typically outnumber females two to one.
I had a particularly poor experience when I was an intern during graduate school. Of six interns on my team, I was the only female, and I often found myself excluded from golf outings (not that I would have particularly enjoyed going.) I also didn’t have a “buddy watching my back.”
I wish that I could find an inspirational quotation that perfectly advises how to rise above in these situations. The truth is: even when the odds are stacked against you and present unfair challenges, you have to suck it up and work past the social obstacles. Build a support system by finding common ground with your male colleagues, seeking out other females or developing it within yourself.