I was thinking more about who taught me what I’ve learned about work after I wrote this post on mentoring and wanted to share thoughts from others, too.
First, I want to clarify that I never meant to insinuate that women’s looks don’t play a role in how they’re perceived in our culture or at work. I know firsthand, as a 5’11 black woman with dreads, that your physical presentation makes a difference in how you are treated. While I was a reporter in San Francisco, I wore business slacks and a pretty blouse to a function for some alumnae from the prep school I attended. I was instantly mistaken for the help at the door.
What you look like certainly matters. Forbes Woman has more detail on that.
But when you’re a teenager, especially a woman of color from an urban and poor setting, you are often treated as if all that matters is what you look like. So I consider it important in my work to remind girls (and sometimes other women) that while business fashion and professional comportment are important, getting caught up in what you look like can be a trap.
The mentors who taught me about work were so eager to make sure that I didn’t undermine my potential to work in a variety of spaces because of my low self-esteem, we never talked about what to wear. So I wore what I had. That created some problems at Goldman Sachs when I wore pants that were too tight and was reprimanded by my boss.
- I hated that job anyway.
- It took a few paychecks for me to save up and take a trip to Filene’s Basement to buy better, work-appropriate clothes.
And, as we know, journalists and writers are not exactly masters of style. So you can never listen to what I say about fashion. What I learned from those experiences was that I wanted to work in an environment where I could dress in step with what my colleagues were wearing—business casual is best for me, personally. But I also learned that no matter what I was wearing, I could potentially be mistaken for the help.
Tahnee wrote that her first job was working in her aunt’s jewelry shop when she was 14. “She taught me a lot, gave me confidence, and inspired me to walk in her footsteps,” she wrote. Her dad, a self-employed photojournalist for 30 years, also instilled confidence. He taught her something that I think is really important for women to keep in mind: “You need to advocate for yourself—there won’t always be someone there to do it for you. Especially for women—so many are too modest.”
For a long time I was overly modest about my work and sometimes I still am. But I have male colleagues and peers who go overboard talking about themselves and their work. At the end of the day, they get better-paying and more frequent gigs because they know how to advocate for themselves. Nobody tells them that they need to pipe down because no one wants to hear it. Self-advocacy is huge.
Rose wrote that she still gets conflicting messages from her family about her career. This is something I’ve struggled with and so have some of my friends. “The loudest [message] is that they don’t care about my professional aspirations and that I’ll be lucky to get a job or make any money at all.” I can completely relate to this.
My father died in 2010, but I met him at my high school graduation in 1996. He served in the military after high school, learned how to be a draftsman in the military, and worked as a civil engineer for over 40 years. He resented my education and he abhorred the idea that I wanted to be a full-time writer because it just wasn’t practical and he didn’t think I was any good at it.
“You should be a teacher or something,” he said once.
“I was born to write,” I said back, but my voice was shaking. If he didn’t believe it, why did I believe it? Suddenly, I was plagued with self-doubt.
“No one was born to do anything,” he responded. And that was that. I still went on to work as a reporter and to publish. But until he died, I heard his voice in my head telling me that I should do something else. It took the death of both my parents for me to follow my dreams, regardless of my own fear and the projected fear of others who discouraged me. I think we all need different catalysts to go after the things we want in business, since we all have different goals. But you’ll have enough naysayers of all genders telling you can’t do something. Why add your own voice to the chorus?