Ten years ago, I was preparing to transition from graduate student to full-time employee. Throughout my years in school, I did the typical things students do to prepare for their future careers—I completed internships, participated in mock interviews, and attended career fairs. Yet internships, a work-study job in a student office on campus, and a summer working as a temp admin still didn’t fully prepare me for life as a full-time employee in a large corporation.
Navigating career stuff can be hard for anyone, but sexism and biases can make it especially hard for women, and even worse for women of color. That’s why we’re partnering with Squarespace this year to talk specifically about what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace. As they say, experience is the best teacher, and I’ve learned more from my ten-year career than I ever imagined. When I think back to the beginning of my journey in the workplace, here’s some career advice I wish I’d gotten:
DON’T EXPECT SUCCESS OVERNIGHT, EVEN WHEN YOU WORK YOUR HARDEST
In my twenties, I had zero concept of how much time it actually takes to progress in your career. I naively thought that hard work and being smart got you promoted quickly. I also graduated with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degree at a time when my industry anticipated a ton of openings due to the Baby Boomer generation retiring. I entered my first laboratory job full of excitement and eager to prove that I deserved to be promoted quickly. I signed up for stretch assignments and worked long hours to prove that I deserved to be the new lab supervisor, once the current supervisor retired. In my plan, I never envisioned that I would not achieve my goal, so I was devastated when I was told it wasn’t time yet for my promotion. I was fresh out of school and still working on “academic time,” where things move quickly. When you have a career of thirty-plus years, three years is not a long time—but I didn’t have that context yet.
See, I forgot about a little thing called “paying your dues.” Depending on your career path, this could be fetching coffee for your boss three times a day, or getting the scut assignments no one else wants. In my career, that meant spending the first two to three years of my career proving myself before getting a promotion, and also being flexible when things changed. Coming out of school, I had this idea that feminism in the workplace meant fighting for what you deserved and not accepting less. Instead of waiting for a promotion, I jumped ship for another company. Now that I’m further along in my career, I understand there is a big difference between “being taken advantage of” and “proving yourself.”
How can you tell the difference? Well, we all have to pay dues when we start our careers, but some managers/companies will take advantage of that concept. This can adversely affect women, as we’re more likely to be passed over for promotions, even when we’re excelling in our work. I’ve seen instances where women had to perform at a high level for much longer than their male counterparts to prove themselves to male leaders and receive a promotion. While you can’t address implicit bias head-on, there are other proactive steps you can take on your path to promotion. I’ve used techniques like frank conversations with my manager about my career goals, and defining a clear timetable and action plan on what goals I needed to complete to achieve a promotion. And sometimes, all you have to do is ask! Clearly, making a case for why you deserve a promotion is sometimes exactly what you need to do to get you to that next level. But if you find yourself in a situation where you’ve proven your case, achieved the goals, and you are still in the same role, it may be a sign that it’s time to look for other opportunities.
BE YOUR AUTHENTIC (Professional) SELF
There’s a fine line between “professional” and “completely abandoning who you are to conform for your job.” Figuring out that line and how far you’re willing to go can be fraught when you’re a woman or a person of color. In my first job, I agonized over the decision to cut off my relaxed hair and wear my hair in its natural state. I worried that it would make me stand out even more, though I’m not sure that was possible, given that I was the only woman and the only person of color in the laboratory. I worried that my leaders would think I was unprofessional for no longer having straight, relaxed hair. Despite my worries, I chopped off my hair and went to work with a short Afro. Surprisingly, everyone in the office embraced it. A few years later, I wanted to start wearing locs, and once again I worried that my locs would be seen as unprofessional, especially in interviews. It was at this point that I was reminded that staying true to myself is more important than trying to fit into a company’s culture. I don’t want to work for a company that wouldn’t hire me unless I had relaxed hair, or required that I wear pantyhose every day, or some other blatantly sexist or racist policy. For me, some things are just nonnegotiable, and being able to be myself at work is one of them.
Being yourself at work is important, but so is professionalism. Every workplace has behavioral norms and learning those norms is key to a successful career. It’s not cute to be the person in the office who openly flaunts the dress code (male or female), or refuses to use email appropriately. It hurts your credibility and makes you look unprofessional. Yeah, it sucks that you can’t wear yoga pants to work every day (unless you’re a yoga instructor), and it may be hard not to curse like a sailor in the office, but it pays to be a professional in the workplace.
WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE DROWNING AND DOING A BAD JOB, THAT’S WHEN YOU LEARN AND GROW THE MOST
Like most of you, I was one of the smartest and most successful students in my classes. I expected that streak to continue when I began my first corporate job, and I got a rude awakening. There were things I didn’t know, and unlike in school, I didn’t have months or years to figure them out. At work, I had problems to solve immediately, and my team depended on me to get it done. And in the moments I didn’t have all the answers, I felt woefully inadequate. I remember starting my second job, and spending the first year feeling like I was barely keeping my head above water. Even after I received a great performance review from my leaders, I still feared that I sucked at my job. In short, I had imposter syndrome—I worried that I wasn’t as smart and talented as everyone said I was, and that I would fail at any moment. Imposter syndrome strikes a lot of high-achieving women and people of color, especially in fields where we are traditionally not represented. By being one of the few, you worry that you aren’t good enough to be there. As a Black woman in chemistry, I was often both the only woman and the only person of color in my laboratory, and the pressure did get to me at some points in my career. I struggled with constructive feedback, because I expected to do everything perfectly, all the time. I compared myself to my colleagues and I wished things came to me as easily as they did to them. And like a lot of women, I attributed my successes to my team or to luck, instead of taking credit for my accomplishments.
Lucky for me, I had a great manager, who was also a woman and had spent time in the labs. Her support gave me a safe space to ask for and receive meaningful feedback, including praise when I thought I did my worst. I garnered awards and accolades, and by my last months in that role, I started to feel that I deserved my success. It wasn’t until I left that role, and the laboratory, that I realized how much I had learned and grown in those difficult moments. At the time, I was uncomfortable and felt like I was failing, but really I was growing and getting better.
Don’t expect it to always be easy, because it won’t be—and those difficult moments are the ones that will teach you the most.
APW readers, what lessons have you learned throughout your careers? What would you say to your younger self?
This post was sponsored by Squarespace. This year we are partnering with Squarespace to bring you a series of career conversations about what it means to be a woman in the workplace in 2016. If you’re in the market for a new job or looking to explore your options, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to create a home online where you can show off your work in the form of a portfolio site, an online resume, or another hub where you can display just how awesome you are. Squarespace provides the creative tools that make it easy to build your online home beautifully, even if you’ve never made a website before and have no idea where to start. In conjunction with our career series this year, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount off your first purchase when you use the code APW16 at checkout. Click here to get your website started today with a free 14-day trial from Squarespace.