There’s a lot of talk out there about how to “make it” as a woman in the workforce. In a world where only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, we still have a lot to learn about how to succeed in the corporate environment. Even though I’m still in the beginning stages of my career, I’ve already experienced firsthand how difficult it can be for women to advance, particularly in male-dominated industries.
As someone who identifies as a feminist, I’ve turned to mentors and leaders to help me navigate my behavior in the workplace. And there’s no shortage of guidance in this arena. We’re surrounded by advice, from Sheryl Sandberg to Oprah Winfrey to our own mothers. Everyone seems to have an idea about how women need to behave if they want to get ahead.
However, over time, I’ve learned that much of this feminist rhetoric doesn’t seem to work for me and my particular situation. In fact, more often than not, I find myself deliberately contradicting the guidance I receive. And so far, it’s actually proven to be beneficial to my career.
Here are five things I do that might make a “bad feminist,” but have been very helpful in furthering my career.
1. Lead the Social Committee: Since I entered the working world, I’ve continuously been recruited to serve on various morale-boosting committees. At first, I was offended. Just because I’m a young woman doesn’t mean that I’m particularly interested in hosting ice cream socials or scheduling lunch-and-learns. I’m not even a particularly peppy person! I didn’t want my colleagues to assume that’s all I was good for. And I’ve heard many feminists advise against joining these committees for just that reason — it reinforces traditional feminine stereotypes, and paints you as a party planner instead of a “serious” business person.
However, I’m pleasantly surprised to report that this hasn’t been my experience. On the contrary, serving on these committees actually tuned out to be a great networking opportunity. I’ve even had one-on-one meetings with the CEO and presented at company-wide meetings. Joining the Social Committee increased my visibility and pegged me as a person who’s involved and engaged with the company. Plus, it’s been a great opportunity to show off my creativity and attention to detail. Because of my involvement with these seemingly-trivial and feminine committees, I’ve gotten to work on several interesting projects that have benefited my career.
2. Make coffee (and other traditionally female responsibilities): It’s sad but true: none of my male colleagues know how to run the coffee machine. And yes, it’s frustrating, and makes my inner feminist cringe. Men are certainly capable of making their own coffee, and I’m definitely within my right to refuse to help them.
But, I’ve found that making coffee and taking on other traditionally female responsibilities has actually helped me in the long run. Again, it’s led me to network with different people in my office that I might never have met — including higher-ups and people in management positions (seriously, you would not believe how many people truly don’t know how to make coffee). It’s shown that I’m a team player, helpful to others, and willing to pay my dues. More than anything, it gets my name out there, even if it’s not for the most ideal reason. It separates me from being just another person in a cubicle. And if making coffee is the thing that gets the VP to talk to me in the hallways, I’ll take it.
3. Talk about my family and other personal things: I can’t help it; I love talking about my personal life to my colleagues and especially enjoy sharing stories about outings with my husband and planning for my soon-to-be-child.
I know that talking about The Bachelorette at the water cooler isn’t the most professional thing to do, and it’s certainly not the feminist ideal, but it helps me foster deeper connections with my colleagues. It shows off my true personality. It helps me become approachable and recognizable to my team. And it feels right. I’m not a quiet, reserved person in my private life, so it’s nice to be able to communicate authentically with my coworkers in the office.
4. Apologize: Apologizing is a sensitive topic, especially for women in the workplace. And I agree that women are socialized to apologize too much, certainly more than men. But I’ve found that apologizing for my mistakes or oversights, even if they weren’t intentional or exactly my fault, has helped gain me respect from my colleagues. I don’t point the finger or deny responsibility. I apologize and offer solutions to try to fix the situation. I’ve had managers tell me how much they appreciate my willingness to apologize and own up to a mistake. And now that I’m a manager myself, I agree that having an individual apologize upfront is greatly preferred over having someone deny involvement or try to hide the issue. I’ve had a complete mindset flip on this. Now, I believe that apologizing is actually a form of strength, not a weakness.
5. Ask for help: I’ve been told time and time again that the key to succeeding as a woman in the workforce is to present a confident image. Do not let your insecurities show. Don’t look for constant reinforcement. And while this “fake it till you make it” mentality can be helpful at times, you truly can’t fake something you know nothing about.
It’s much better to ask for help and explain the situation outright than to act like you know what you are doing and totally flop. It doesn’t matter if it makes you look weak. It’s a characteristic of a strong person to accept her shortcomings and ask for support when she needs it. I openly admit it when I do not know something, and seek out resources to provide me with the information. I can’t tell you how many mistakes I’ve prevented, simply by asking for help. It’s made all the difference.
By doing these traditionally feminine things at work, I’ve helped to distinguish myself from my coworkers and have furthered and grown my career. Despite not falling in line with traditional feminist ideology, they’ve set me apart and helped me gain a positive reputation.
However, it’s important to note that there are some pieces of feminist advice that I do insist on following no matter what. For example, I always “sit at the table.” I actively participate in every meeting I’m invited to. I suggest ideas and solutions. I ask for more work, even if it’s not always glamorous or something that’s necessarily in my job description. I advocate for myself and keep a log of all my achievements. And most importantly, I set firm boundaries, and do not let people take advantage of my politeness.
In today’s evolving work environment, you have to find what works for you and what feels right in your particular situation. There are some pieces of advice you may disagree with, and some that you stand by wholeheartedly. Just because you don’t follow every piece of advice you hear doesn’t make you a bad feminist. The most important thing is that you show up authentically, and do your part to help women succeed in the workforce. We’re all in this together!
Jillian wants to live in a world where the coffee is bottomless and the sweatpants are mandatory. As a professional writer, she enjoys crafting copy that cuts through the bullshit of the everyday media. When she’s not being a word wizard, Jillian can be found hiking the trails with her husband and her slightly neurotic German Shepherd named Penny. To learn more about her work and her love of sweatpants, visit her website or find her on Twitter.
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