Women At Work: Advancing Your Own Career

Originally published in Flexi – The Future Of Work Monthly Newsletter, January 2014

Young, brown and female – it’s what the world at large and the corporate world in particular, remind me I am every single day, while all I am trying to be is me. And if there is anyone who can stop this, if there’s anyone who can convert this labelling to a strength rather than a weakness, it is only me.

women at work

It is what I have learnt the hard way and it is what I would like to share with readers of this article. Being a woman is not the only thing that often goes against us, it could be just one of many. In my case, I have found the lack of grey hair (apparently having four white does not count!) and dark brown Asian skin have been added dimensions. For a very long time, being single counted against me. While that thankfully is now taken care of for me, I really don’t think marital status should count in one’s career growth.

Often gender diversity discussions tend to lean towards what organizations must do to support women’s careers, what gender inclusion networks must do, what male colleagues and bosses must do. While these support systems have a useful role to play, their success is in their uselessness. And therefore, the ultimate goal has to be for women to become empowered and work towards their career goals themselves.

I have always said one thing to all my teams, colleagues and training program participants – if you don’t care enough about your career, you can never expect someone else to care for it.

Unfortunately, I find women damaging their careers everyday by not caring for it enough and waiting for others to do something about it, just like the world has been taught to wait for super heroes.

I might have been the same way, had I not been jolted into consciousness by a rude shock. It was a compensation year-end discussion with my skip-level manager. A senior, reputed HR professional who shared a dismal bonus amount with me and expected me to be happy after a year of brilliant performance (objectively speaking, without bias for myself). I of course, was trying to be polite though I was unhappy. In hindsight, that was a big mistake. But well, I was two years into my first job and naïve. He asked me if I was happy and before I could respond, answered the question himself:

“Of course you are happy. After all you are engaged now, why do you need the money? Now your fiancé will earn and you will spend.”

I have never really recovered from that statement and it is one of the iconic stereotypical statements that keep me going.

So here are three things I have learnt a woman needs to advance her career:

Be assertive

Learn how to say no without feeling guilty and how to say yes without feeling angry. It is ok to want growth, it is ok to have certain personal commitments, it is ok to not want to smoke or drink and it is ok to want it to.

Everyone is only going to be comfortable with you if you are going to be comfortable about yourself. If you are conscious about being too thin or too fat, working too late or not late enough, spending too much time on personal priorities or focusing on your career too much, that’s exactly the impression you are going to convey to anybody you are in conversation with. I have heard women say, “Oh, I will have to miss this meeting. Is that ok? I have a parent-teacher meeting to go to and I really can’t miss that. I hope you understand.” The same women are perfectly capable of saying, “Oh, we need to reschedule that meeting. I have a clash.” If we can be objective about another meeting, why can’t we be objective about taking half a day off? Do we need to superimpose the PTA meeting and the parent role that we play and be apologetic about it? We need to learn to say, “Oh, I am away for the first half tomorrow. Let’s look at rescheduling that meeting to the second half.”

Prioritize your time

First, work-life balance is a myth. It is the age of work-life integration.

There is no clear demarcation any more about when work ends and when life begins. You have to be able to take a personal call at work and respond to work emails from home and we need to leverage that flexibility to its fullest. Second, work-life integration would imply we have to prioritize how much time and attention we give to life and work in the limited time we have. I read a quote by Gloria Steinem, noted American feminist and journalist today. And what she said stuck with me, “I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career.” If we want to advance our careers, life cannot always be more important than work. Life has different stages. Use that to prioritize work when you can. For example, “I will make sure I load my 1st, 3rd and 4th quarters with all my major work priorities for the year and take up stretch assignments. Will focus on keeping the 2nd quarter lean so I can make sure I don’t have to stretch late during summer holidays.”

Network proactively and meaningfully

You need to be your own spokesperson. At the same time, it does not hurt to have powerful allies. Find opportunities to have meaningfully interactions with people who are important to your career.

Let me share two extreme examples with you. One of team members had to join me in a meeting with the chief executive of the site. A day before, I asked her what she was going to discuss with him. “After all he is Anil. We see each other every day. I’ll just tell him.” I swallowed my surprise and asked “And what are your going to wear?” to which pat came the reply, “It’s Friday, so jeans.” If you don’t take yourself or the other person seriously, can you expect them to do so in return? Another team member once had to travel to another site where she would be meeting a lot of people she worked with for the first time. I asked her what her plan was and she said she would attend the program she was going for, sight-see a bit and come back, spend Sunday with family. You have an opportunity to be in the same location as your counter-parts, have your strategized your schedule, asked them for meetings, prepared updates to share with them? One has to proactively network in a mutually beneficial way.

Each of these things I mention deserves an essay of its own; has a history of its own rooted in traditional gender roles, the structure of society, the evolution of the corporate world and more; and there is tons of substantiating research. As I write this, I know it is easier said than done. But I want this to be a reminder that it is possible.

I want this article not to dwell upon the why of the past, but the how of the future.

So I hope this article makes you think about what you can do differently if you are a career woman and how you can enable women to take charge of their own careers, if you are a colleague – senior, junior or peer – of a career woman.

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