Our first book on nonprofit leadership for women, 100 Ways to Start Smart and Stay Ahead in Your Career will be available soon. It is a collection of 100 essays which provide professional advice for young women starting their careers in the nonprofit sector.
Women who entered the workforce during the 1970s and 1980s did not have as many choices as young women today. Some graduate programs and some occupations were almost closed to women. Each of us from that era has memories of fighting sexism and inequality in the workplace.
I can recall a professor who told me I “worked under too many handicaps” to get a doctorate. When I asked what they were, he noted that I was married and had children. Another time I was offered a lower starting salary than advertised. When I questioned the amount, the administrator replied, “Well, aren’t you married?” implying that my husband’s salary would more than compensate for my loss of income.
These examples seem laughable—and perhaps even illegal—now, but not all of the workplace battles for women have been won. Sexism is alive and well in many organizations. Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes in the same job. When multiplied out over a career, this difference is staggering and has significant implications for retirement and standard of living.
Additionally, while women now earn more college and graduate degrees than their male counterparts, we have yet to permanently crack and dismantle the glass ceiling. We applaud the progress that has been made while recognizing that only 20 of 100 Senators are women, and women hold only 4.6 percent of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. There is still much work to be done for equality for women in the power structure.
One of the advantages of being part of the “Women’s Movement” has been the great support and advice women provided for each other along the way. We needed to stick together to make an impact. Most women of my generation did not succumb to the “Queen Bee Syndrome” where, if they reached the top, they tried to keep other women down. Instead, we realized that helping one woman get ahead was a success for all of us.
If we were very lucky in our careers, we had one or two or more outstanding mentors who helped us along the way. They were our graduate thesis advisors, our internship and lab supervisors, our hiring managers, our coaches, and our role models. They supported us and taught us what we needed to know to move forward. Each of us who had a woman like that in our corner owes an enormous debt of gratitude to professional women everywhere.
This compilation of career tips is designed for the woman just beginning her professional journey. It was co-written by two of us, one nearing the end of a long and rewarding career and one a millennial in the first decade of her professional life. We have worked together and have been co-thinkers for eight years. From that partnership, we have identified 100 topics we believe young women need to know to start smart and to get ahead in their careers.
Women and girls have, indeed, made great strides in all areas of American society. Women can decide for themselves if they want to “lean into” the workplace or raise a family full-time. Women live longer than men, have higher graduation rates at all levels, and evidence shows that women often have an advantage when it comes to their particular leadership skill set. Yet, when women do fall behind men, it has become known as an “ambition gap” rather than a complex confluence of factors which still affect women in profound ways.
Issues like an increased minimum wage, a strong healthcare system and social safety net, adequate child care options, and the availability of quality education programs are all disproportionality women’s issues. However, the world, in terms of resources, policies, and opportunities was built by, and for, men and we continue to feel the repercussions of a system that was intended to cater to only 50 percent of the population.
It is naïve to assume that our work is done. Every woman I know has stories about being stereotyped, belittled, discriminated against, harassed, ignored, or treated poorly in some way. Women can exhibit the same behaviors as men and be perceived completely differently. Instead of being seen as assertive, we are strident. Yet, if a woman does not exhibit clear strength, any perceived weakness is exploited. If you are too good at your job, you might be seen as competition. If a hint of emotion is shown, it’s blamed on hormones.
The data, anecdotes, and stories found in this book should frustrate any woman. The good news, however, is that the women who came before us overcame incredible obstacles and persevered so that we could enjoy unprecedented rights and opportunities today. How will we choose to build on their struggles? Will we take their efforts for granted or will we honor them and support one another as we progress through our careers? We think that women have a certain responsibility (both to ourselves and to each other) to continue this fight, in all areas of our lives, and push to create a world that is actually equitable.
Those of us who have been fortunate to have strong female mentors in our lives, undoubtedly, have an incredible advantage. Without someone to turn to during your formative career years, the workplace can be an intimidating place that threatens to swallow those who don’t figure out how to navigate it. When you do have someone in your corner—a woman who has your best interests at heart, who will be honest with you (in good times and bad), and who will push you to accomplishments that you never would have considered—it is arguably the most important step you can take to reach your professional goals. We know that not everyone finds such a mentor, which is why we’ve compiled this book of career advice. Written from the perspective of both a mentor and mentee, we think that every woman has the right to start smart and fulfill her potential.