Wednesday, March 11, 2009
I caught the elevator to my office the other day and noticed a young woman in a low cut, tight fitting pink sweater pushing a hand cart full of files struggling to get onto the elevator. I held the door for her and she said, "Thanks, oh my God, this is like, SO heavy!" I thought, oh she has no idea. I know, from like, my own personal experience, which was like, totally a bummer. I can vividly remember pushing reems of copy paper I had just bought at the office supply store back when I was 20. I had on a short skirt and could barely maneuver the cart in my high heels.
I have been working since I was 17 and all throughout my twenties I was frustrated that people didn't take me seriously. One of the primary responsibilities of one of my early jobs was to run "mail merge" in Microsoft Word because no one else in the office knew how to do it. I wrote instructions on it and trained everyone but they still relied on me. Despite the fact that I proved I had special knowledge and aptitude, I was still treated like a receptionist who files her nails to pass the time. By the way, I file my nails about once a year and never at work!
This continued until I hit my 30s and after a few more years of struggling, I am finally to a place where people listen to and respect me. Part of the problem was me. I acted my age. I drug my feet when I walked, dressed like I just walked out of the mall, and spoke like a teenager. Why would anyone respect me, I didn't really deserve it.
Now I am asked to facilitate meetings and serve on committees and I finally feel respected for the contributions I bring to the workplace. What changed? First of all, I dress appropriately, this is important and people want to deny this fact but how you dress affects the way people view you. I don't wear tight pink sweaters that are low cut because that would be ridiculous. This isn't 1952 and I'm not looking for a husband. I also speak clearly and think first about what other people want rather than strictly about what I want. This comes through to people and they feel respected by me first, which allows them to easily respect me back.
It has taken 20 years of mistakes to get this far and I don't want a re-do on my life but I could have done without a few experiences, like getting sexually harassed.
There are a few young women in my office who started out as student workers but have worked themselves into full time positions making a decent amount of money while their peers are still living with their parents and trying to find a job. The difference is simple, they showed up for work as a student, behaved in a professional manner and proved themselves necessary and it worked. They are starting their careers early in a tough job market. I can tell you that they are rare, I have tried to hire many student workers and 95% of them were small disasters. I probably would have been one at that age too. I have been giving career advice to one of the young worker friends and I can tell you one thing, I don't have to advise her on how to speak or dress, she's already got that down. Where was my mentor 20 years ago?!