The Book on How to Thrive

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Don't let yourself get "assistant-ized."

It's one of the many perils of being a young woman in today's job market, Hannah Seligson warns in her new book, "New Girl on the Job: Advice From the Trenches" (Citadel Press, $19.95).

There are enough issues that specifically affect young women -- such as salary negotiations and the tendency to pigeonhole women into support rather than leadership roles -- that she felt they deserved their own career guide, she said in an interview.

Seligson, an Alexandria native, isn't too far from those wondering-if-you-look-like-alittle-girl-playing-dress-up-in-a-suit days herself. "New Girl" is a look at what she learned from her mistakes as well as guidance from other women -- some young, some at the top of their field such as cosmetics maven Bobbi Brown, television journalist Soledad O'Brien, and Jill Herzig, executive editor of Glamour magazine. It's a practical addition to a field crowded with plenty of navel-gazing angst.

"New Girl" covers the key things that any young woman needs to know to thrive at those first couple of jobs, including:

  • Asking for feedback. No, this isn't a sign of weakness, Seligson says. It's one of the most effective ways to get better at your job. Constructive criticism isn't a personal attack, so don't take it as such. Solicit feedback in an informal, ongoing way to keep from getting "sandbagged" -- "when a supervisor or a boss hurls a litany of complaints at you with little warning . . . which is more likely to occur if you wait until your year-end review to get feedback from your boss," Seligson writes.

  • Responding to sexual harassment. Despite great advances in women's rights, sexual harassment still limits women's progress at work. Seligson's advice is no-nonsense and straightforward: "If a situation with a male co-worker leads you to contemplate quitting your job or transferring divisions, or is preventing you from operating at full throttle, it's probably time to seek an intervention." The flip side to that is to curb your own flirtiness. When you're young, it's easy to think, "Hey, I'm cute, why not work that for all it's worth?" But in the long run, it could backfire. "Oprah Winfrey certainly didn't get where she is today because she used her sexuality, and she's not the only one," Seligson writes.

  • Moving on. Young women often hang on to jobs for way too long, even jobs where they are grossly overworked and under-compensated. It's as if they are afraid to leave. But staying put comes at a cost. "By staying in a job that makes you miserable or in which your skills and talents aren't utilized, you are losing precious months -- or even years -- that could be spent in a job for which you're better suited. . . . There is a difference between paying your dues and working at a job you hate," she writes. (She's onto something. I often get e-mails from people who are terrified of how their boss will react when they hand in their two weeks' notice at their entry-level jobs. Those people are never men.)

  • Negotiating for raises. The persistent pay gap between men and women (including right out of college, according to one recent study) makes this an issue all young women should pay attention to. Seligson nails the problem with a reference to what negotiating experts Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb call the "tiara syndrome" -- "when you keep your head down and do your work and expect that someone will notice you and put a tiara on your head." It doesn't work. Young women must stick up for themselves in pay negotiations, for their own benefit and because self-confidence is perceived as an asset to employers.

    Digging Out of a Rut

    Do you fear that you're being "assistant-ized," or stuck in an entry-level job longer than you should be? If you're willing to share your story for this column, e-mail me at Please include your full name, home town and a daytime phone number.

    Join Mary Ellen Slayter and guest Hannah Seligson for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 2 p.m. tomorrow at

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