I used to hear the same piece of career advice all the time. Perhaps it sounds familiar: “Just work hard and you’ll be recognized.” I believed it for years.
People mean well when they say it, but it’s terribly misleading, especially for women.
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Women are known to be diligent workers. They’re excelling at college and graduate school. But the attributes that allow us to perform well in an educational setting — a propensity for hard work, perseverance, striving to get things “right” — don’t necessarily translate to success in the workplace.
“One of the reasons women do so well in school is that we are great followers of authority,” says Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of the consultancy She Negotiates. “We check the right boxes, follow proper procedure and tend not to act outside of the authority we are given.”
That can backfire on us at the office. Because in addition to working hard, getting ahead depends on getting to know the right people, speaking up for yourself and taking a few risks — all of which can feel uncomfortable for women, many of whom operate firmly in “good girl” mode.
But while Jane is beavering away, toiling until midnight in the expectation that her efforts will pay off, Joe may be hanging out with the boss after hours, either at a bar or on the golf course. The next thing you know, he’s been promoted because his bosses know him and feel comfortable with him, while Jane is bewildered that her work has apparently gone unrecognized. McKinsey & Company, as part of its research on women in the workplace, found that men spent more time networking than women, and that men are promoted on their potential to perform, women on their actual performance.
Pynchon tells the story of a lawyer she knows who, returning to her firm after maternity leave, was tempted to ask her boss if she could work part-time. A female colleague advised her, “No, it’s a path to nowhere. Just work part-time — don’t ask for it. The guys do it all the time.” So the woman now comes in late and leaves early (by law firm standards anyway) “which is hard for a female rule-follower to do,” Pynchon acknowledges. But by subtly subverting the system, she’s able to spend more time at home while staying firmly on the partner track. What seemed daring at first is now just her daily routine.
Ashley Milne-Tyte is a radio producer and reporter based in New York City. She hosts a bimonthly podcast called “The Broad Experience” about women in the workplace. Learn more about breaking the rules in her episode called "Killing the Ideal Woman" below and be sure to check out the archives!