Professional women have a problem.
Despite making up half the British workforce, women comprise barely a third of managers and only a quarter of directors. Clearly, something is stopping them getting to the top.
Cue the creation of a whole heap of female-specific career advice. Ambitious women are instructed on how to dress, how to stand, how to speak, how to lead, and how to succeed. Unfortunately for them, much of this women-only advice is, simply, awful.
Segmenting anything work-related by gender is rarely a good idea. Most women, like most men, want their professional successes to be about their talents and achievements, not their sex. But if you must give your female candidates advice “for women”, at least stay away from these four shockers:
“Act like a man”
Theory: Bic (the pen manufacturer) is actually the Jonathan Swift of the 21st century, and their marketing campaigns are intended as a biting satire on the enduring patronization of women by our patriarchal society. How else to explain not only the laughable “Bic for Her” debacle, but their subsequent decision to release an advert – on Women’s Day, no less – which read: “Look like a girl / Act like a lady / Think like a man”?
Unfortunately for women everywhere, it isn’t just Bic that propagates this notion that aping “masculine” traits is the only way for women to succeed. In fact, a worrying amount of women’s career advice boils down to talk like a man, dress like a man, and act like a man. To be clear: touting traits like confidence, assertiveness and directness is reasonable. But suggesting such characterises are ‘naturally’ only found in men is incredibly insulting. Articulate, bold and trailblazing women aren’t “acting like men” – they’re acting like the successful, badass women they are.
Of course, some women (and -shock!- some men) do have the sort of “feminine” personalities that mean they excel at such things as empathetic listening, consensus-building, clear communication, goal-setting, and the ability to innovate. Which, of course, are all completely invaluable skills that have no place in a business, let alone leading one.
“Boys will be boys”
Male colleague making sexually inappropriate jokes at you? Giggle and flutter your eyelashes because you don’t want to be to stick-in-the-mud who can’t take some friendly banter. Creepy male manager stops at your desk to massage your shoulders? Keep schtum, because boys will be boys, and you don’t want to come across as difficult.
Enough. Over half of women are sexually harassed at work. For a third, that takes the form of “banter”, or unwanted jokes. For a quarter, it consisted of unwanted touching. As if that wasn’t messed up enough, almost one-fifth of the perpetrators were the victim’s manager. And the vast majority of women never report any of it.
This is not Okay. Moreover, any encouragement to women to hush up such sexual harassment is making the problem worse. Providing a safe environment for all their employees to work in should be the primary concern of all workplaces, and every employee who suffer harassment should both be encouraged to report it, and be taken seriously when they do.
“Wear makeup and high heels”
To be fair to the givers of this advice, they may well be being swayed by the results of studies such as this and this, which conclude that women with “glamourous” (read: heavy) makeup appear more competent, and that your colleagues are more likely to help you out if you’re wearing heels (although only if they’re male).
But the idea that the only way for women to get on top is to force their feet into the latest pair of Jimmy Choo toe-pinchers is as ridiculous as the notion that wearing more eyeshadow than Ru Paul will somehow snag them a promotion. To be clear: if you have a shoe wardrobe to rival Carrie Bradshaw, can contour better than a Kardashian, or just generally like wearing high heels and makeup to work, then you should go for it. But neither should be seen as a requirement.
Choosing to wear make-up and/or high heels should be regarded as equivalent to choosing to wear a blue shirt instead of a white one. Neither choice impacts your ability to look professional and polished, which is all employers have a right to expect of your appearance. Because -regardless of the abovementioned studies- women will only be the best workers they can be when they feel confident and comfortable. And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to kick ass when you’re not balancing on five-inch heels!
“Negotiate in a girly way”
Not negotiating salary can cost employees $1,000,000 over their lifetime, and evidence suggests that women are more likely than men to stay schtum rather than asking for a raise. Consequently, women should absolutely be encouraged to push for the salary they think they deserve, and be coached in good negotiating tactics.
What they should not be advised to do, however, is to apologise for asking for a raise, blame their asking on someone else, or generally focus solely on being “likeable” and “feminine”. To be slightly fair to the researchers who proposed these tactics, they believe that as long as sexism is a reality, being “pragmatic” about the need to conform to gender stereotypes is the only way women will get paid more, period. But by giving this advice to women, they reinforce damaging notions that their gender marks them out as inferior, and increase the uncomfortableness around negotiating which is already the main reason most people hold back on broaching the topic.
For real, long-term benefits, encourage professional women to put pressure on companies to be transparent about any wage gap between male and female employees, as well as to be so incredible at their job that no decent company will dare refuse their request for a raise.
About the author: Beth Leslie is a professional career advice and lifestyle writer. She is currently a writer and blog editor for Inspiring Interns.