Helping Women Get Ahead Isn’t Trying to Fix the Women

Giving women career advice isn’t blaming women. It isn’t telling women to act more like men. It isn't saying that fixing things is the woman’s job. It isn’t ignoring the fact that the system needs fixing.

It is simply helping women get ahead.  

Honestly, if I sound exasperated, it’s because I am.  For months now I have read too many headlines (aka clickbait) explaining all the reasons why a career program for women is wrong. The most recent headline that set me off was titled, “All career advice for women is a form of gaslighting.”

Would anyone say that giving men career advice is a form of gaslighting?

The more we judge and label giving women access to strategies, tools, networks and coaches as wrong, the more we perpetuate the existing system.

I have been coaching men and women for nearly 15 years. Women face different issues in the workplace. So, in the spirit of helping women, and at the risk of being criticized for doing so, here are four pieces of career advice that can help you get ahead. 

1. Get clear on what you want. 

It’s not enough to leave your career trajectory up to someone else. Plus, no matter how much they care about your career, it’s not nearly as much as you care about your career! Be the composer and conductor of your own life.  

What are your core values? Therein lies your why -- the why that gets you high and the why that makes you cry.  What gives you energy? Think of your body as having a battery symbol like the one on your mobile phone. What recharges it? What drains it quickly? Do more of the former and less of the latter. What do you do well, repeatedly and happily? At the intersection of your values, energy and strengths, you will find your path forward.  

Why is this different for women? Because we have been socialized to put others first, be helpful and likable, be a team player and do what others need rather than what we want. So we don’t take the time to figure out what exactly it is that makes us fulfilled.

Even Michelle Obama writes about this in her memoir when she says, “Somehow in all my years of schooling, I hadn’t managed to think through my own passions and how they might match up with the work I found meaningful.” But Barack had.  

2. Ground your confidence in knowing how the work you do matters. 

Confidence is believing in your ability to do something. The best way to believe what you do is worthwhile is to ask. When you do something well, ask ‘’how does it impact the team, organization, product, outcome?”  Look for confirming evidence of how your contribution matters.

Keep positive feedback in a file and review it from time to time to remind yourself of the great work that you are doing. Frame your 1:1s with your manager by asking about your contribution since you last met. Be specific about what you’ve done and align it with organizational objectives. And when you are given positive feedback, let it in. 

Why is this difficult for women? Because we’re told to be perfect at everything we do in order to get ahead. We downplay the good and give undue weight to the bad. We think focusing improvement will make us better. We minimize our contributions while celebrating those of others. We worry about failing and we take fewer risks.  

This is not our fault! It’s part of the system that wasn’t designed for us. Girls are rewarded for putting their heads down and doing good work, and for not engaging in risky behavior or drawing too much attention to ourselves. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, says “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.” 

In my work, I do what I can through coaching and programs to point out where the system is failing women. What kind of feedback are managers giving? How can organizations learn to recognize reward systems that are hurting women and begin to change them? Until then, ground your confidence in how your contribution matters. Make it clear.

3. Get connected to mentors, opportunity givers and sponsors.

The women I coach do not have the same level of sponsorship as the men. Many have to find their own mentors and ask others to advocate for them. Affinity bias remains one of the strongest reasons that men get ahead. The organizations with whom I work are predominantly male led, and many of those leaders unconsciously cultivate relationships with people they already know or with whom they have common ground. I recently published an article with a partner of mine on business development in law firms. I heard repeatedly that the “old boys network” is alive and kicking.

I remained somewhat oblivious to this until I started paying attention. I was taught that people got ahead by doing good work. And while this was partly true, it only went for so long. At a certain level, the people who got ahead were connected. They had cultivated advocates. 

I started mapping my network, building it intentionally and leaning into it. It is something I now ask the women I coach to do. Who do you know? Who has helped you? Who could help you?  Why would they help you? Whatever you are asking for, who are the real decision makers?  Who is close to them?  What do they care about? I coach people to pick their heads up and look around. Who gets ahead and how? 

It’s critical for women to find connectors, strategizers and opportunity givers. Form alliances and pay attention to where and how decisions are made.  

4. Get centered so you can bounce back quickly.

Finally, the women I coach struggle more with burnout than men. Why? Again, it’s the system!  In their book Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski discuss what they call “Human Giver Syndrome.” They say it’s a collection of personal and cultural beliefs and behaviors that insist that some people’s meaning comes from a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous and attentive to the needs of others. And the “some people” they are referring to are women. 

Other factors that lead to burnout include the perfection trap, the disease to please and the need to be liked. Here are a few ways to overcome these traps. 

Breathe. Slowly and rhythmically. Through your heart. It changes your heart rate variability and calms your parasympathetic nervous system.

Exercise, as often as you can, because it makes your body feel better and changes your energy.  

Acknowledge your feelings, use them as a source of information about what does or doesn’t work for you. Let go of what is no longer serving you. Remember, don’t believe everything you think. 

Ultimately, shift your focus back toward your meaning and purpose (Step 1). Connecting with why you do things, especially when they are grounded in your values and in what gives you energy, creates a sense of optimism, gratitude and renewed focus for your work.  

Then get back out there and keep working to change the system. The world needs more women leaders. You’ve got this.

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