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Career advice for young women, then and now

Once upon a time, when ambitious young women were buying serious navy suits in the hope of attracting grizzled mentors, I wrote the career column for Miss Chatelaine magazinewhere I had landed my first job. Miss Chatelaine could not afford a real career expert, any more than I could afford a navy suit on what they paid me. My advice came mostly from how-to books, with a smattering of cautionary tales about young strivers who had missed their first business flight or gotten sloppy drunk at the office Christmas party.

I wrapped all my gleanings in spunky, no-stopping-you prose, and it made for a convincing read. You’d think I knew at least the rudiments of corporate success, when in fact I was stymied by the mother of all workplace problems that faced young women like me. I didn’t know how to ask for a decent raise and get it. I never wrote a column on that topic. It was just too scarey.

For some years now, young women have been telling me that times have changed. No inequities, no glass ceiling, no fear that the 6 p.m. “day care dash” will limit career opportunities. When women my age talk careers with our daughters’ generation, the 20-somethings express amazement at our stories, as if we were battle-scarred officers in a Remembrance Day parade–gallant survivors of a vanished world. And meanwhile all the studies show that women still don’t progress as far as men, or have the same earning power. It’s the prerogative of youth to be hopeful, and I hate to counter hope with blunt, impersonal statistics or motherly assertions based on days gone by. So instead of pressing my argument, I say, “I hope you’re right.” And I do.

Now along comes journalist Hannah Seligson, born in 1982, to tell the Girl Power generation that it’s time to wise up. I haven’t read her book New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches. But to judge from her essay in Sunday’s New York Times, not a whole lot has changed since I was writing career advice. Women still aren’t comfortable asking a colleague to go for a beer. They still have trouble asking for a raise. And they still believe, against all the evidence, that perfectionism is the route to success.

I used to think so myself, hunkered over my typewriter at Miss Chatelaine.Determined to be indispensable, I wrote not only the career column but the book reviews, a lifestyle column and the occasional feature article while whipping other writers’ prose into shape. I took a briefcase home every night to fine-tune my day’s work (God forbid I should resort to a lazy phrase). How did the old saying go? “A woman must be twice as good as a man to be thought half as good.” I believed that, which made me suspicious and brittle. Expecting slights, I set myself up for them. No wonder I’m bemused by young women who expect that energy and talent will take them anywhere they want to go.

If I could give my young self a few words of advice, I’d tell her this. Building alliances is more important than dodging threats. Forget about striving to be always right; the real challenge is admitting the truth when you’re wrong–and if necessary, making amends. (I borrowed this tip from the 12 Steps, as rich a source of workaday wisdom as any career guide I know). Accept the fact that you’ll never have all the answers; focus instead on asking the right questions. Take yourself seriously, but cultivate lightness of spirit. Do everything you can to love these years of your life, because you’ll never get them back. (My, my, how I could ramble on.)

She’d smile and nod; then she’d go her way. Isn’t that how it’s always been? But through trial and error and comradeship, things work out more often than not in the never-ending process that is known as growing up.


Posted by Rona

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