working women

Ellen Pao on Meritocracy

Photo credit: dcJohn / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: dcJohn / Foter.com / CC BY

Lately we have been thinking about the discrepancy we see between younger women starting their careers, and women with several more years of work experience under their belts.

It’s a generalization, of course, but many of the youngest, most ambitious women we hear from are often least likely to believe that gender equality is an issue in the workplace. Take Elizabeth*, a Harvard Business School student in her late-20’s. She’s worked in a difficult, male-dominated environment prior to business school and believes her gender is irrelevant. Elizabeth admits things might look different one day when she has children, but at the moment, she sees no difference between herself and male counterparts. (*Elizabeth’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)

When we speak to the youngest women in the work-force, we often hear things like “I don’t feel like there is any difference between me and my male counterparts. I can do anything they can do.” A Pew survey shows that 41% of millennial women think that being a working parent does not make having a career more difficult and 25% think no further work needs to be done in improve gender equality in the workplace.

Anecdotally, we hear these beliefs in our conversations. We also notice this viewpoint seems to shift — almost imperceptibly at first — as careers progress.

Ellen Pao describes this transformation in an essay she wrote for today’s issue of Lenny. Much like Elizabeth, she says: “I grew up believing the world is a meritocracy. It’s how I was raised, and it made sense for a long time.”

This belief sustained me, mostly, through my early 20s. That was 20 years ago, when I saw my prospects as awesome and full of possibilities. I was fresh out of Harvard Law School, and my classmates and I thought we could do anything we set our minds to do. I believed in the system, because it seemed to work, and frankly it was just so easy to believe

After a few scrapes, bruises, hard work, compromises and work-arounds, things started to look different:

But after a while, we were all treading water, just trying to get by as our ranks thinned and progress got harder. We were wondering, Is it just me? Am I really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough? Am I not funny enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong? Eventually, there comes a point where you can’t just rally and explain away all the behavior as creepy exceptions or pin the blame on yourself. And the glimmers of achievement are too few and far between. You see patterns, systemic problems, and it doesn’t matter where you are or what industry you pursue.

This is similar to the comments by former Yahoo President Sue Decker in her career reflections on the same topic:

I, and most women I know, have been a party to at least some sexist or discriminatory behavior in the workplace…At the same time, the men who may be promulgating it are often very unaware of the slights, and did not intend the outcome. And for the women, it happens in incremental steps that often seem so small in isolation that any individual act seems silly to complain about. So we move on. But in aggregate, and with the perspective of hindsight, they are real.”

While this evolution in perspective may be far from universal, it certainly does seem to happen often. There may be a lesson (or two) to draw from that journey. Pao, herself, ultimately draws the hopeful conclusion that things are improving.

While the world may not be a pure meritocracy, neither is it a horrible place everywhere. In our community, for example, there are some very happy women satisfied with their work, career achievements, and ability to balance their personal lives. We’re obsessed with what they share in common, and are currently studying what they say. Stay tuned!

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working women

The Importance of Apprenticeship

women in STEM

photo by slate.com

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” – Nobel Laureate and biochemist Tim Hunt at a conference earlier this month.

By now, women in STEM industries have probably heard about Professor Hunt’s resignation from University College London following the outrage over his comments. While there was justifiably outrage public outcry and an outpouring of social media responses (see #distractinglysexy) this article by Sarah Clatterbuck Soper who describes what it’s like for her to be a woman in a lab made the biggest impact on us.  She talks about all the things that make life different and more difficult for women in science labs but we think her most important comment was:

I found myself thinking that Dr. Huang’s counsel [to a female postdoctoral fellow to “put up” with a mentor who looked down her shirt] was regrettably sound. Getting on your mentor’s bad side could ruin your career.

Most successful people know how valuable a mentor can be in our careers.  And in terms of pure numbers, it is far easier to find a male mentor in science — or indeed among management teams in the workplace — than a female mentor.  Many members of the Fairygodboss community talk about the importance of support in the advancement of their careers.  Some call it mentorship and others call it sponsorship.  Apprenticeship is a term that’s not as commonly used, but Soper’s article defines it well:

Twenty-first-century science has a great deal in common with the medieval apprentice system. Young scientists, typically graduate students and postdoctoral fellows like me, join the laboratory of an established principal investigator…Only when this lengthy period of training is complete might a young scientist hope to establish an independent laboratory of her own, but she will always be known as having trained in Dr. So-and-so’s lab.

From personal experience and from the stories women have shared with us, it seems to us that science is not the only place where “medieval” apprentice systems still exist in the world.  One of the most common ways to advance your career is to attach oneself (either purposefully or accidentally) to a rising star, whether that’s a CEO, founder, or other manager.  Countless women talk about the importance of both learning from this individual, and also of being supported, believed-in, and promoted alongside this person.  However, formal acknowledgment of the importance of apprenticeship is a rare occurrence in the corporate world, and apprenticeship is fraught for women with male mentors because of a number of quite natural things ranging from real differences in interests and life experiences, to the perceptions of close male-female relationships in the workplace.  In some ways, we imagine that the science lab may be an easier place for women to successfully find senior male support than the less formalized systems of the corporate world where politics and the need to clothe everything in meritocratic terms obscures the role that apprenticeship plays.  What has your experience been with apprenticeship?  Have you experienced or observed it working between men and women?

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working women

How to Find a “Multidimensional” Role Model

Yesterday, Fast Company profiled Lyft, the car sharing service.  Its a good read for women in STEM looking for role-model profiles or for an example of a tech-startup that has good gender diversity.  According to the article, Lyft’s management ranks (i.e. director level or above) are 47% female, and include roles in engineering and operations.  I’m writing about the article because I thought one of the most practical things I ever read about balancing work and life responsibilities was snuck into the beginning of the piece, in the section about Lyft’s CMO, Kira Wampler.  When Wampler was considering positions at different companies after business school, this is what she did:

“I would ask them, can you give me an example of someone in your organization who is roughly this age, who has roughly this number of kids, who just had a promotion?”

That kind of foresight and personal work-life planning is not necessarily common, but it could be very helpful to women who know that not all employers and companies are equal when it comes to supporting working women with families, or who want to have families one day.  Also, its another way of thinking about “role models” within an organization.  Role models don’t just have certain titles — they also have whole lives that we might want to emulate.

It makes me think that this is the type of information we should try to solicit on Fairygodboss from users.  After all, its the kind of question that isn’t necessarily socially or professionally acceptable to ask during the interview process (though its arguably easier than asking about maternity leave policies) and isn’t disclosed (or even measured) by companies.  What do you think?

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working women

Can Match-Making Work for Marriage, Career and Mentorship?

Internet dating has become so mainstream and in some cases — fun — that most of us have a pretty good idea of what its like even if you haven’t personally done it.  I’ve certainly lived vicariously through enough digitally-initiated date stories and profile views that I find it unsurprising that a dating site like eHarmony is trying to diversify into the job market.  The company recently announced it’ll launch a match-making service between employers and employees later this year.  The idea is that employers struggling with high-turnover and who are looking for long-term commitment can be algorithmically matched with compatible candidates who are in it for the long haul.  In short, eHarmony is basically betting that its success in the marriage department can be replicated in the job market.

This makes sense to me, though I don’t think a matching algorithm can be no more than an initial conversation-starter and meeting catalyst.  After all, two people will only get together for a chat and maybe eventually meet if they — not a formula — both decide they might be interested in each other.

Fairygodboss will also offer a “matching” service to connect members of our community who need advice with those that might have some insight to share.  We’re doing this because a lot of professionals we’ve spoken to cite “mentorship” as a barrier to advancement and gender equality in the workplace.  “Mentorship” is a big, loaded word, just like the word “relationship”.  But both begin life with a simple “hello” and grow organically (or not) from there.

For that reason, we don’t love the word “mentorship” and think its a concept doomed to fail.  After all, useful career advice doesn’t have to come from a formalized relationship or a corporate program.  Useful career advice doesn’t even have to come from someone who is necessarily “senior” to you at the same company (or a different one).  These days, people’s careers zig zag and take them to different places over time (whether its from Industry A to Industry B) or from a certain work-life situation to another one.  In other words, a lot of people know something that can be helpful to someone else and it doesn’t have to look like a stereotypically traditional — and frankly, outdated — model of mentorship in order to be extremely useful.

Another issue with mentorship is that after talking to many people, we ultimately came to the conclusion that one-on-one dialogues cannot be replaced by generic career advice, even from the most well-meaning individuals.  The trouble with one-on-one dialogues, however, is that they’re time-consuming and usually the people who are paragons of career success have the least time to give.

The good news is that we don’t think you have to be famous, a CEO, or even press-worthy to have a lot to offer.  We believe that people can be matched in a productive mentor/mentee relationship if both parties opt in and are realistic and honest in their profiles about what they’ve done and what they’re looking for.  This might end up being nothing more than a one-off chat or it could be a long-lasting affair…Nobody can guarantee it’ll work out every time, but as digital daters all know, that’s ok because there are other fish in the (digital) sea!

 

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