From the moment baby boomers joined the workforce, women made it their mission to create a fair playing field for everyone. But after decades of feminists plowing down the boys’ club, today’s women enter a totally different kind of workplace and need totally different advice for succeeding.
What should the new rules be? This list is long, but here are five points to get the conversation going:
1. Date Coworkers
I can see how 40 years ago, when it was still legal to ask a woman what her husband thought of her career, it would’ve been bad to date coworkers. Back then, women felt powerless in the workplace.
But today, young women feel they have equal power to men. And they aren’t deluding themselves — women and men receive equal pay in business until they have children (after which woman are penalized for having kids more than men are). So men and women approach dating at work as equals.
The bigger issue here is that if you’re working 40 hours a week, you’re more likely to meet the people you want to date when you’re at the office. If you tell yourself that all men at work are off-limits, you put yourself at a huge disadvantage.
And if you want to have children, you need to make getting married a higher priority than your career. This isn’t some radical statement — it’s backed by a lot of research, not the least of which is that you can’t tell your biological clock to wait while you refuse to date all the men you come in contact with.
So the adage to not date men you work with is totally antiquated. It assumes that women aren’t equal to men, can push back childbearing indefinitely, and should put their career ahead of getting married. All of these are bad assumptions.
2. Show Some Flesh
If you had any doubts about the power of looking like a girl at work, check out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s look. No one’s more studied in the art of the female image than Hillary, and her new appearance is much more feminine.
This isn’t surprising, though. There’s a wide body of research that shows that women are received better when they hit that magic point between dressing like a guy and dressing like a harlot.
For instance, Yale psychologist Marianne LaFrance found that medium-length hair is best for looking smart; too long is too sexy, and too short is too boyish. And Debra A. Benton, author of “How to Think Like a CEO,” says that dressing too much like the guys is what high-ranking men say holds back high-ranking women.
Hitting the midway point applies to makeup as well. If you wear too much, you look like you’re trying too hard, but if you wear none, people perceive you as disinterested, according to Sherry Maysonave, author of “Casual Power.”
3. Expect Harassment
A recent segment on New England Cable News reported that 46 percent of summer interns will be harassed. And most professional women will experience some form of sexual harassment in their career — some studies even say as many as 80 percent of them.
It’s clear, then, that most women don’t report harassment. But it isn’t because they’re scared — it’s because they’re smart. The laws are very clear on what companies should do to respond to harassment claims, but they aren’t very clear on how to define when a woman has been illegally fired for reporting harassment.
The careers of most women who report harassment suffer, even if the company works hard to do the right thing. The law is too far behind the times, so don’t report harassment.
Instead, have a plan. Know that you need to tell the guy you’re not interested if you’re not. Know that you won’t get a lot of protection from human resources even though they tell you they’ll protect you. And finally, know that just because you encounter harassment doesn’t mean you provoked it. You can wear a shirt that shows a little cleavage and not be accountable for the fact that most 40-year-old guys will take a look when you walk by.
Wear the clothes that you feel comfortable in, because people who are true to themselves at work perform best. But take heed from the research above: You’ll do best if your clothes fall somewhere between frumpy and revealing.
4. Go to Business School
Here’s how things used to be: You graduated from college, worked for three to five years, went to business school for two years, then graduated and got the job of your dreams.
The problem with this scenario is that you’re in your late 20s by the time you start working in your chosen profession, and most women want to start having kids by their early 30s. So, if you leave the workforce right after joining it, you really compromise your ability to leverage your hard-earned degree.
So business schools are accepting candidates earlier. Of course you still have to have good credentials to get in, but it’s no longer essential to have the requisite number of years of work experience between college and business school. Business schools will officially say that the change in policy is to attract the best candidates, but unofficially, the change is to attract the smart women — specifically, the women who are aware of the great biological clock rip-off that business schools were in the past.
5. Tone Down Your Work Ethic
For the last decade, girls have earned better grades and better SAT scores than boys, and they’ve had higher graduation rates, too. This persists through college.
After that, men catch up in the workplace. This isn’t because they start working harder, it’s because what they’ve been working at all along — multitasking with their video games and socializing with their friends — is what the workplace values most. Getting straight A’s is, after all, widely understood to be an unreliable indicator of how well you’ll do in your career.
So stop being the overachiever who does each assignment perfectly. Instead, start focusing on the stuff that really matters at work, like productivity skills and getting along with people. But don’t be too much like the guys — because we know that’s no good, either.
About the Author
Penelope is the founder of 3 start up companies — most recently, Brazen Careerist, a social network to help young people manage their careers. Her career advice appears in more than 200 newspapers. In a review of this blog, Business Week called Penelope’s writing “poetic.” For more tips from Penelope Trunk about life, work and the intersection on of both, join her and Truu’s Romi Lassally for their first FREE webinar on Tuesday, June 8th.
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