Seven pieces of bad career advice women should ignore

When young women enter the workforce, they are typically inundated with a range of career tips to help them succeed. Although most of this advice is probably well-intended, that doesn’t necessarily make all of it helpful. In fact, by legitimising the status quo, focusing on fixing women rather than the system and blaming women for not behaving like incompetent men, many suggestions are more likely to perpetuate gender bias.

With so much available advice, it’s hard to know what to follow and what to ignore. So, we provided a list of popular suggestions that we believe women should neglect. Our best career advice is to avoid following any of these tips:

1. Find a mentor

We encourage you to strike the word “mentor” from your vocabulary and replace it with “champion.” Mentor is a warm and fuzzy term that suggests amenable chats and advice. Women don’t need mentors. Women need what men get all the time — a champion, someone prepared to go out on a limb for them to make things happen.

To find a champion, pick a person in a position of power who is not sexist and not afraid to challenge the status quo. This can (and in a perfect world would) be a woman, but right now, the numbers show that this person is more likely to be a man. There is still a huge power gap between the sexes in the corporate world. Statistically speaking, men still get promoted more than women as well as occupy a greater number of higher-level roles.

Once you find a champion you trust, turn them into your ally. Showcase your talents, drive and commitment to making an impact — make them feel proud to speak up for you.

2. Change the way you speak

Women are constantly told to change their vocabulary — to make it less apologetic and more assertive. But the world would be a much better place if, instead of telling women to say sorry less, we told men to say sorry more. We need to worry less about editing women and more about editing incompetent and inappropriate men.

Most of the problems organisations and nations have (i.e., corruption, bullying, harassment and toxic or destructive leadership) are the direct results of our failures to restrain or inhibit powerful men. So why are we perpetually worried about censoring women?

3. Be more confident

Many advice columns are devoted to encouraging women to gain more confidence. But the problem isn’t women’s lack of confidence; it’s men’s oversupply of it. It is not good to lack confidence to the point that you are holding yourself back, but a surplus of confidence is equally problematic. The right amount of confidence will align with your actual competence. If you are equally realistic about your talents as you are your limitations, you will close the gap between how good you are and how good you want to be. You get better only if you are aware of your flaws and are willing to mitigate them.

Remember that self-awareness will always be a stronger asset than self-belief, and one many more men should emulate. It is ironic that we tell women to get rid of their impostor syndrome when many corporations have a problematic history of putting overconfident and under-competent men in positions of power.

4. Find work-life balance

Men are rarely told to find work-life balance, so why should women have to hear this? Instead of seeking balance, find somewhere to work that cares about you. Look for a workplace where those in charge of setting the rules and creating the culture know what really matters. Work somewhere where people trust you and your talents, so there’s no micromanagement and overfocus on where you are, what you’re doing or how many hours you’re putting in.

One benefit of the pandemic is that it’s forcing employers to focus on results, not process. Make work fit your life instead of the other way around. And if your employer doesn’t get it, then perhaps that’s a signal that you should work somewhere else, where people value your quality of life.

5. Fake it till you make it

Don’t fake anything. Instead, do yourself justice. This simply means talking up your accomplishments, your intention and your vision in a way that gets you recognised. These are statements of fact. All you have to do is start saying them aloud.

Of course, things would be different — and perhaps more rational — if we lived in a world that rewarded actual talent and hard work, and promoted people on the basis of merit rather than gender.

6. Just be yourself

This is easier said than done. Unfortunately, in many work environments, career success depends on understanding how others expect you to behave, and conforming to existing roles and conventions — and being yourself as a woman is received differently from being yourself as a man.

What should you do instead? Seek out a work environment that understands and delivers psychological safety, or the ability for team members to be vulnerable in front of each other and honest with no fear of repercussions.

7. Ask for advice

Your intuition and gut instinct are far more valuable than any advice, and unfortunately all too underused in a business world where women are constantly the recipients of excessive amounts of advice, sought out or not. In place of asking for advice, listen to your gut. To do that, you need to stop caring what other people think. Fear of what other people think is the single most paralysing dynamic in business, and life. Instead, look within yourself. When faced with a challenge, pay attention to your own response. Trust your own instincts, and if you make a mistake, learn from it.

As a general principle, doing the opposite of what the corporate world tells women to do is likely to get you better results. While this approach may seem counterintuitive, there is little evidence of progress around gender equality even after years of media publications and business gurus telling women to be more confident, lean in, find a mentor or ask for more advice. Progress will not happen if we perpetuate an unfair system that is not meritocratic. It’s time to take a different approach.

Written by: Cindy Gallop and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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