Quintessential Careers:
10 Powerful Career Strategies for Women

by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

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  • Have you come a long way, baby? The general impression is that women are becoming incrementally more successful in the workforce -- and some of the news is good. Women are represented in the workforce in greater numbers than ever and holding a higher percentage of managerial and executive jobs than in the past. Women-owned businesses have doubled in the last dozen or so years. But some news is not so good.

    The Government Accounting Office, for example, recently reported that in 1995 and 2000, full-time female managers earned less than full-time male managers in 10 industries, after controlling for education, age, marital status and race. Female managers in the communications industry made 86 cents for every dollar earned by males managers in 1995, but by 2000, the figure had dropped to 73 cents on the male-earned dollar. Similar drops were reported in entertainment and recreation services; finances, insurance, and real estate; business and repair services; retail trade; and other professional services. See more about pay equity and women's wage gaps.

    Lack of pay equity and the ever-present glass ceiling continue to be obstacles to women's career success. But women have secret weapons, opportunities to deploy their special strengths, and the ability to adapt talents typically thought to be men's domain. If our 10 strategies seem to suggest male-bashing or a war between the sexes, that's not the intent. It's just about leveling the playing field in a work world that has been inequitable for women for far too long.

    Here are 10 strategies women should consider for advancing their careers:

    1. Get as much education and training as you can
    Education is, by far, women's most powerful secret weapon, and we have been preparing for a sneak attack for at least the last decade. In 1975 a majority of the college degrees awarded went to men. This was true at the associate, bachelor's, master's, first professional, and doctorate levels. By 2000, a majority of the associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees were awarded to women, according to the Postsecondary Education Opportunity Research Letter. The Research Letter also reports that at the first professional and doctorate degree levels, the wide gap seen in 1975 has mostly closed, and within a decade a majority of these degrees also will be awarded to women.

    "The story told by the data describe an extraordinarily broad and long-term shift in the proportion of higher education earned degrees from men to women," the Research Letter notes. "In a world increasingly dependent on the education and training provided by colleges and universities," the publication continues, "women are preparing for that world and men are not. We are heading into a world where the interests and values of women will gradually come to displace the interests and values of men. It will be a different kind of world as a result."

    There you have it. The workplace may not have quite caught up, but women are making serious inroads in the "knowledge is power" equation, and our best hope to crash through that glass ceiling is to keep doing what we're doing.

    Get the highest degree you can possibly manage. The old obstacles of lack of money and time need not deter women anymore because many new options for financial aid and distance learning are available. A very helpful resource for financial aid is the book Pathways to Career Success for Women: A Resource Guide to Colleges, Financial Aid, and Work.

    Consider informal ways of educating yourself through, for example, joining professional organizations, attending conferences, and keeping up with trade publications in your field.

    To the extent possible when seeking a job, look for companies that offer training programs and professional development opportunities. Make a point of asking in job interviews what kind of training is available. Your goal should be to develop a set of portable skills that are transferable and applicable to various career fields. Learn more about transferable skills. An excellent resource for learning how to leverage your education and training is Caitlin Williams' book, Successful Woman's Guide to Working Smart, particularly Chapter 4.

    2. Be a surfer "girl"
    Women are in the majority, not only in most realms of higher education, but also in Internet use, comprising at least 52 percent of Internet users, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. Women are also more efficient in their Internet use; they spend less time surfing because they know what they're looking for.

    Women are already harnessing the vast amount of information that the Internet puts at their fingertips. In an age where the amount of information available to us by 2010 is expected to be 10,000 times what it is today, it's hard to avoid the notion that knowledge is power, and women are well positioned for the power afforded by their efficient use of the information superhighway.

    And women's command of the 'Net ties closely with their quest to overtake men in education. A recent report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation found that distance- or online-learning is on the rise, and women make up the majority of students. Sixty percent of nontraditional online learners are over 25 and female.

    The bottom line here is that women can stay on the cutting edge through continued dominance on the Internet and by taking advantage of online learning opportunities. A great place to get started is the distance-learning section of Quintessential Careers.

    3. Leverage communication and interpersonal skills
    Numerous recent studies have noted differences in the way men and women communicate and relate interpersonally. Women's way of communicating is not necessarily better than men's, but it may be better suited to newer styles of management. So-called "feminine attributes," such as the ability to build relationships with customers, strike up joint ventures, and partner with suppliers are increasingly important, says Janice Gjertsen, manager of business development for AOL's Digital City.

    In her book Successful Woman's Guide to Working Smart, Caitlin Williams lists these changes in the workforce: more team-based work, increased customer contact, multiple demands, greater workforce diversity, higher expectations, and tighter timelines. "While successfully dealing with all these changes may call for different knowledge and technical expertise in each instance, the need to interact well with others is a constant across every single change we make...interpersonal competence is moving front and center as a requirement for organizational success today."

    Generally speaking, more women than men are likely to earn the comment "plays well with others" on their workplace report cards. Women should deploy their strong interpersonal and communication skills at every opportunity and tout their accomplishments in this realm.

    4. Plan your career
    Career planning is important for everyone, but especially for women because they generally have more twists and turns to negotiate along the road to career success than do men. If you have a road map, you'll be less likely to become derailed if you should, for example, decide to relocate to be with a significant other, have a baby, or suddenly need to care for an elderly parent.

    Decide where you want to be five, 10, and 15 years from now. Build flexibility into your career plans to allow for changing circumstances. Your plan may need to change to accommodate those life changes, but your core plan with better equip you when that happens.

    Tools to consider using as you plan your career include career assessments, a workplace values exercise, a personal mission statement, and a SWOT Analysis. Some helpful articles include:

    5. Network
    Who are the more successful networkers, men or women? You might guess women because women seem like the natural talkers, while we tend to think of men as holding back. The facts indicate that men use networking more effectively than women, however. The results of a 1997 study conducted by EnterChange, an outplacement and career management consulting firm, and reported by Valerie Frazee in Workforce magazine, show, for example, that women are more likely than men to find their next job through an ad in the classifieds, while networking is a more effective strategy for men than women. Does that mean that women should start scouring the classifieds? No, it just means that men and women should use their different styles to greatest advantage. Consider the following:

    • Women's networks tend to be more egalitarian and inclusive than men's, according to writer Kathy Harvey, who describes a career consulting company's experience with asking women to list people who might form part of their network. Women were more likely to mention people at lower levels than themselves, as well as those at the higher echelons, while men tend to focus on people with power and influence. Men may benefit from network contacts with greater clout, but women can take advantage of wider and more diverse circles of contacts. Some experts also say women are better at sharing than men, so both men and women may be able to expect more career-based generosity from female members of their networks than either gender can from men.
    • Women have traditionally been expected to devote more time to family and domestic responsibilities, thus lacking as much time as men to build networks. We're starting to see more women networking out there on the golf course, for instance, but that's a fairly new phenomenon. To be truly competitive in the networking arena, women may have to put more time into making contacts -- and may have to ask their male partners to take on a bigger share in juggling family life and work.
    • The number of all-women networking groups is increasing enormously, in part to create the same kind of networks that are already entrenched for men. An all-woman networking group can be enormously beneficial to women seeking mentors and contacts who've already succeeded in breaking through the glass ceiling. These groups also can be an efficient way to deal with the time crunch that curtails women's networking. Increasingly, women are organizing networks within their own companies, often with corporate support. Two books by Catalyst, the nonprofit research and advisory organization that works to advance women in business and the professions, provide detailed information about creating women's internal networks. See details and reviews of these books.

    To learn more about networking, check out The Art of Networking on Quintessential Careers, as well as Women's Networking and Professional Associations.

    6. Find a mentor
    If you do no other kind of networking, at least find yourself a mentor -- or let one find you. "While mentoring relationships are important for all organizational members, they are essential for women," writes Dorothy Perrin Moore in Careerpreneurs: Lessons from Leading Women Entrepreneurs on Building a Career Without Boundaries. "Mentors can both protect women from discrimination and help them learn what men supposedly learn from the 'old boy's network' about how to navigate their way past obstacles to their career success." Echoes Caitlin Williams, "The majority of women who have succeeded in their careers and reached position of influence credit their participation in some sort of mentoring effort for getting them where they are today."

    A mentor is that one person who can guide you, help you, take you under his or her wing, and nurture your career quest. A Yoda to your Luke Skywalker. A Glinda the Good Witch to your Dorothy Gale. What separates a mentor from the average network contact is long-term commitment and a deep-seated investment in your future. Where a typical network contact might be associated with quick introductions, exchanges of business cards, and phone calls, your relationship with a mentor likely involves long lunches and time spent in the mentor's office. A mentor is often in a position you'd like to be in and has the clout and connections to guide you to a similar position. He or she is someone you probably have unusually good chemistry with who will share stories with you of his or her own climb to success. An effective mentor isn't afraid to criticize constructively.

    To find a mentor, identify someone you admire, and test the waters by asking advice. Be sure to reveal as much of yourself as possible. Mentors are most likely to invest themselves in those in whom they see a little of themselves, which is why you should never approach a prospective mentor in state of desperation or helplessness. The mentor wants to work with someone he or she can respect. He or she may even desire to mold the protégé in his or her own image, which is fine as long as the mentor is not too obsessive about it, and you are comfortable with the image into which you're being molded. You should have a good feel after a few meetings as to whether the rapport is right for a mentoring relationship. At that point, you can either come right out and ask the person to be your mentor, if that feels appropriate, or you can simply tell him or her how much you've benefited from the advice you've received so far and that you hope he or she will continue to share it with you. Although the mentor will tend to give a lot more than you do to the relationship, be sure to express regularly that you value and appreciate the mentor's guidance. The feeling of being needed and making a difference in a protégé's life will often be a rewarding payoff for the mentor.

    7. Cultivate and project confidence
    Women often suffer from a crisis of confidence in the workplace, especially when the environment is hostile or chilly to them. Caitlin Williams, author of Successful Woman's Guide to Working Smart, informally surveys women to whom she presents workshops, asking them "what one quality do you believe is the most important for your career success?" Confidence wins the top spot every time, Williams reports. The author, whose book provides numerous inventories and exercises for assessing and building confidence, suggests remembering past successes, believing in your ability (education and training play a big role here), knowing yourself, and seeking career encouragement (a mentor can help).

    Williams also suggests creating a career portfolio as a great way to reinforce your sense of confidence. Learn more about creating a portfolio. You may also get a boost to your confidence from tracking your accomplishments. This article can help: For Job-Hunting Success: Track and Leverage Your Accomplishments.

    8. Self-promote
    Once you've shored up your confidence, you need to make sure others know how terrific you are. "In today's workplace," Caitlin Williams writes," one of your keys to success is your ability to let others know who you are, what you have to offer, and how you can make a difference in their organization."

    Self-promotion is not easy for women. "Many women are uncomfortable with self-promotion because it flies in the face of society's message that a woman is the support person who is supposed to put other needs ahead of her own," write Binnie Shusman Kafrissen and Fran Shusman in their book, Winning Roles for Career-Minded Women: Understanding the Roles We Learned as Girls and How to Change Them For Success at Work. But women need to toot their own horns because they can't depend on others to do it for them.

    Make sure people within and outside your workplace know about your accomplishments. Submit news of accomplishments to your company newsletter and local newspaper. Let your boss know what you're up to. One professional we know sends out a monthly email to his boss and his boss's boss to keep them updated on his progress on various projects -- and to share any accomplishments and accolades from the previous month. Promote yourself as an expert on one or more topics and volunteer to speak to local organizations. Also check out our article, Using Key Marketing Tools to Position Yourself on the Job Market.

    9. Incubate your talents
    If you have big dreams of career or entrepreneurial success, seek to spend some time working in organizations that will help you incubate your talents. This incubator concept is a centerpiece of Dorothy Perrin Moore's book, Careerpreneurs: Lessons from Leading Women Entrepreneurs on Building a Career Without Boundaries. Moore suggests that corporate incubators can help you gain exposure to customers, suppliers, and competitors; foster specific managerial, technical and planning skills; and learn how to do things better by working in less-than-optimal environments for sub-optimal managers. By spending a few years in a corporate environment specifically cultivating skills and making contacts, you can more easily propel yourself either to greater success in your next career move or to a position where you can start your own business.

    10. Become a free agent
    In a 1998 joint study by Catalyst and the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, women business owners cited four major reasons for leaving the private sector: lack of flexibility (51 percent); glass ceiling (29 percent); unhappiness with work environment (28 percent), and feeling unchallenged in their jobs (22 percent).

    Other studies have shown different reasons for the bailout by women. "Bucking conventional wisdom, professional growth, power, and money were the big drivers in influencing women to leave corporate jobs in the past five years -- not the glass ceiling, balance, or personal life," according to Caroline Nahas, managing director at Korn/Ferry International, which in 2001 conducted a study, "What Women Want in Business," with the Eugene M. Lang Center for Entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School and the Duran Group. Read more about the study.

    No matter what women's reasons, corporate America's loss is apparently women's gain since women-owned businesses are being created at twice the rate of all businesses.

    "Companies cannot afford to lose a generation of women leaders" Nahas says. "In today's world, talent is the primary source of competitive advantage. Even with the current wave of layoffs, the generation shift from Baby Boomers to the much smaller 35- to 44-year-old age group will leave us with a drought of seasoned talent," Nahas says.

    But until corporations wise up or until women start using their growing educational advantage, entrepreneurship can be an excellent option for the woman who seeks career success but isn't finding it within organizational boundaries. If free-agency is a course you're considering (see if you're ready by taking our Consultant/Free Agent Quiz), you'll find abundant resources to get you started, including Moore's book, Careerpreneurs: Lessons from Leading Women Entrepreneurs on Building a Career Without Boundaries and our article, The Word is Out: Becoming a Free Agent is a Hot Career Path.

    Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

    Katharine Hansen, PhD, QuintCareers.com Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.