Young women today receive all sorts of professional advice on how to succeed from pundits, the popular press, and even fashion magazines. Unfortunately, the advice women are receiving is not helping to close the gender gap at the top levels of organizations. In fact, according to a recent Catalyst study, when women follow the advice from their managers and popular literature, they are actually less likely to be promoted.
In response, I spent last semester taking an independent study researching, structuring, and synthesizing findings from social science to better understand what young women can do to minimize discrimination and maximize their chances for success in the professional world. Findings are based on research, experiments, and statistical analyses from some of the top scholars in the field of psychology, sociology, and organizational behavior. Below are my most interesting findings and recommendations for my peers and myself:
Surround Yourself with the Right People
Tip 1: Build a network of powerful people. Research by Gail McGuire shows that women tend to benefit less from networking than their male peers. This is because they are networking with less powerful and less influential individuals—not because they have smaller networks or weaker networking skills.
How to do it: Instead of dismissing networking as “political,” find a person who you respect who is also a successful networker and model your behavior after him or her.
Tip 2: Find a sponsor, not a mentor. Conventional wisdom is to give women mentors and they’ll succeed, right? Wrong. The reality is, finding mentors will not necessarily lead to success. In fact, a recent study by Catalyst shows that women report having mentors slightly more often than men, 83 versus 76 percent of the time. The challenge is that women receive fewer benefits from mentors than their male peers. Mentors of men typically act as “sponsors” who go beyond normal responsibilities of personal advice to advocate and create opportunities for the mentee.
How to do it: Find mentors who not only counsel you professionally, but are invested in your development and success.
Tip 3: Seek out organizations with senior women: Research by HBS’s own Robin Ely showed that females who work at firms with more senior women are more likely to experience their gender as a positive identification element, more likely to view senior women as role models, and less likely to feel competition with female peers.
How to do it: Do your due diligence when interviewing with a company. Be sure to talk to women about their experiences in the organization and ask HR for statistics for the number of women in leadership.
Tip 4: Beware of “female ghettos”. Research by Dana Stover showed that women are typically in departments with less influence than their male peers at the same level, and are thus removed from important decision making.
How to do it: When applying or shifting to a new organization, collect information to understand which departments and positions garner influence and target those.
Tip 5: Model aspects of effective individuals’ style. Herminia Ibarra found that an individual’s successful transition into management required observing role models, experimenting with identities, and evaluating success through feedback. Because of a lack of senior females, women were often unable to find informative personality matches to model and avoided emulating others. As a result, these women limited themselves from meeting requirements of their new positions.
How to do it: Draw style elements from a wide network of people you admire (men and women), and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone.
Seek out and Effectively Manage Feedback
Tip 6: Ask for frequent and objective feedback. Women, as well as men, lower their performance expectations of themselves in the absence of feedback, according to Paulette McCarty. In contrast, men and women can better address both criticism and praise if it is specific and observation-based.
How to do it: Seek out feedback whenever possible and ask for specific examples of your performance.
Tip 7: Develop a Strategy for effectively handling feedback. Work by Tomi-Ann Roberts and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema show that feedback influenced women and their self-perceptions more than men. Men were not only less influenced by feedback, but they were also more likely to focus on positive feedback.
How to do it: Take detailed notes so that you remember the praise as well as the criticism. Most importantly, frame and drive your feedback conversations in a positive light (e.g., instead of asking your supervisor about your “weaknesses,” ask what you need to do to get to the next level).
Understand how your personal and professional lives effect each other
Lesson 8: Choose your partner wisely. Work by Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen McGinn asserts that women negotiate in two spheres: home and work, and that the outcome from one negotiation will influence the other. This implies that your partner, and his or her approach to domestic responsibilities, could impact your ability to adapt to a demanding job and achieve professional success.
How to do it: Have conversations on domestic duties and expectations before tying the knot.
Lesson 9: Beware of mentioning the three letter word—MOM. According to many studies, women who are mothers are paid less than other women. Discrimination is a factor: in controlled experiments reviewing resumes, both women and men rated candidates that were mothers as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, as well as deserving of lower salaries than non-mothers. Additional research shows that people view pregnant women as less dependable than their non-pregnant female peers.
How to do it: These extremely discouraging findings may suggest you should avoid mentioning motherhood in an interview or announcing your pregnancy at work before necessary. This is a terrible reality, but one every woman should be aware of before discussing motherhood or pregnancy in a professional setting.
Lesson 10: Avoid organizations that reward “face time.” Data suggest women still have disproportionately more responsibilities at home than men, regardless of their income. This means that companies that reward “face time” are indirectly penalizing women.
How to do it: To avoid this losing battle, look for organizations that use results-oriented, objective measures (e.g., sales growth) for performance evaluations.