By Kelsey Price, USTAR Strategic Communications Manager
In the grand scheme of things, I realize that at age 28 my professional career is really just beginning. While it’s been successful, it hasn’t necessarily been extraordinary. There are hundreds of women far more successful with careers much more storied than my own.
However, my career has been unique in that I have worked in four industries — military, sports, science and technology, and international business — that are all male-dominated fields.
In several of these positions, I have been fortunate enough to have worked for strong female leaders who have empowered me in my career. As a result, the most critical piece of advice I can share with young college graduates or other professional women as they embark on the next adventures in their careers is this: proactively seek mentorship from female leaders.
Everyone benefits from mentors, male or female. Mentors have been there and done that, so either you (a) know what to do to succeed or (b) know how to avoid your predecessors’ mistakes.
With that in mind, the greatest lessons I have learned in my career have been through proactively seeking the wisdom of female leaders around me. I am sharing these lessons with the hope that they may help you in your career.
1. You will face sexism in your career regardless of industry. It’s up to you how you navigate that challenge.
I won’t lie to you or dance around the issue: sooner or letter, you will find yourself facing sexism in the workplace.
Some of it is such an afterthought that you might not even notice: the default temperature in the office, the size (or complete lack thereof) of pockets in your workwear. Some sexism, however, is less innocuous.
When this type of sexism occurs, the most valuable asset one can have is a female mentor that can help you navigate how you respond. Is the instance worth a formal HR complaint? What if your workplace is a startup and doesn’t have an HR department? What are the potential ramifications of bringing this to HR? Is there an alternative route than HR — can this be proactively addressed in a way that not only (a) resolve the issue but (b) helps educate others in your office?
The reality is there is no universal answer for sexism in the workplace because no two instances of sexism will be the same. However, seeking out a female mentor who can help you navigate a stressful experience can help you honestly and realistically decide what approach is best for you and your career.
2. Learn to listen to criticism. Even if it’s said because you are a woman, that doesn’t make it less accurate. Feedback — especially criticism — can be a tough pill to swallow.
Early on my career, my immediate reaction was to disregard any criticism (constructive or otherwise) that would not have been said to a man in the same position. When I first started working full time, I was told more than once that I was “abrasive” in meetings. At the same time, I knew that same personality trait in a male counterpart would have been simply celebrated as being “to the point and direct.”
Eventually, this came to a head when I called out this paradox to a male authority figure and the fallout that followed. I realized then I had two choices: ignore the criticism and accept the consequences or learn to adapt. The perception, warranted or not, was holding me back and if I wanted to advance, I needed to adapt my behavior in order to change that perception.
On that note, only you can choose what you change. As you listen to feedback, remember how you take that to heart may vary depending on the situation. A change also shouldn’t have to come at the cost of what makes you uniquely you.
3. Alignment and approval are not synonymous.
For better or for worse, the stereotype that women worry about being liked runs deep. When you compounded this with imposter syndrome, it’s easy to see why and how women may lack confidence at one time or another in their career.
The secret I wish I had learned sooner from female mentors is that being liked and accomplishing your goals in the workplace are not synonymous. It’s easy to let this worry about being liked negatively affect your ability to make an impact.
Rather than reinforcing the need of a team member to pick up the slack, it can be tempting to opt for “nice.” Rather than speaking up, it’s easier to choose not to because you don’t want to be seen as confrontational, non-collaboration, unsupportive, or worst of all, be labeled the dreaded b**** word.
However, by seeking to be liked and avoiding confrontation, you’re holding yourself back. By saying what you think — but taking an approach that seeks understanding — you empower yourself and other members of your team to find commonalities and ways to align your different views that enable you to be more effective and create to a more significant impact.
After all, creating an impact is what we’re all seeking to do, isn’t it?
Kelsey Price is the strategic communications manager at the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR), where she promotes growth in Utah’s deep science and technology sectors. She also serves on numerous local nonprofit and community boards, including the University of Utah Alumni Association, Kappa Kappa Gamma, West High School Alumni Association and the Emerging Leaders Initiative of Utah, a non-profit dedicated to increasing civic engagement among young Utahns ages 18-35. She is an avid sports fan and mediocre skier.