Career Track Live
Advice for Young Professionals

Mary Ellen Slayter and Hannah Seligson
Washington Post columnist and guest
Monday, May 14, 2007 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart, ambitious young workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are establishing their careers locally, and offers advice online as well.

Mary Ellen Slayter is author of Career Track, a biweekly column in The Washington Post's Jobs section. She focuses her chat on issues affecting young workers.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

Today, she is joined by Hannah Seligson, author of "New Girl on the Job: Advice From the Trenches" (Citadel Press, 2007). Seligson's book was inspired by her own experiences of being the "new girl on the job." It focuses on the common issues facing young women in today's workforce. Seligson is also a graduate of Brown University.

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Welcome to Hannah Seligson, our guest today. Hannah is the author of New Girl on the Job, a new career guide for young women.

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D.C.: I know that you often get questions on this chat from people who are in their first job, and are disappointed because they expected more substantial work, etc. After reading your column yesterday, I wonder how many of those questions come from women who may actually have a legitimate complaint. How does someone tell the difference if they are stuck making coffee because they're the new person, or if it's because they're a woman?

If it's a large company, you can look at what your co-workers in similar positions are being asked to do, but if it's a small company there might be nobody to compare against.

washingtonpost.com: Here's that story: The Book on How to Thrive, (Post, May 13).

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm glad you mentioned that. It's actually one of my favorite parts of the book, and a big part of why I chose to review it. It IS hard to tell sometimes if you're getting stuck somewhere or just paying your dues.

Hannah Seligson: It's a great question. Even if you work in a small company, you can still compare yourself against the general industry standard. But I think the way to navigate around this issue of getting "stuck" is to set a time-line for yourself. That time line (and it should be realistic, not I want to be a senior vice president next month) can be a springboard for a conversation with your supervisor about how to atain those career goals.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm curious as to what working mothers are looking for in the workplace. I'm childfree myself and my workplace offers a daycare in addition to general leave, alternative work schedules and compressed work schedules to parents. All of these options are more readily available to parents than those of us without children at my workplace to the point that there is an obvious bias. At what point do those of us that are putting in extra hours and doing extra work for those individuals who have to leave work constantly for their kids get additional benefits?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your employer should be doing a better job of distributing the work load when people take leave for whatever reason.

I'm not sure I buy that alternative and compressed work schedules for parents automatically lead to the worker getting less work done, though. Many of the most efficient people I know are parents.

Hannah Seligson: This is quite a common phenomenon. I interviewed many young women who said that they had to shoulder more because they were single, or didn't have children. Like Mary Ellen said, your employer should be doing a better job at managing this problem. I'd bring this problem directly to your boss. Additionally, I'd see if you could find some strength in numbers. Meaning, find some other women in your office who feel similarly and address it from the collective.

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Washington, D.C.: Although I'm not ready to have children yet, the thought of having to take unpaid leave and pay for child care is definitely in my mind. Why is the U.S. so far behind in these types of benefits compared to other industrialized nations? Do you think we will ever see better maternity benefits in the workplace?

Hannah Seligson: One of the reasons is that we have a male-dominated legislature. But the good news is that we can take steps to have better maternity benefits in the workplace. On a legislative level, this means voting for candidates that are going to promote and advoce a woman-friendly workplace. On a more personal level, it means finding lobbying your employer to offer these benefits. Women should also be aware of what their company's maternity benefits are. I call this doing a "background check." Since these policies can vary dramatically by company, it's critical to have this information before you take maternity leave.

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Master's in philosophy (again): Thank you for taking my question and comment. A few weeks ago I wrote to you asking if you could clarify (generally) entry-level job expectations. I phrased my question in a way that maybe did not clearly articulate this point. The core of my question was whether you thought my decision to pursue a master's in philosophy was preemptive. Your response seemed to hit on a very specific and popular definition of success-to pursue and utilize vocational education. The problem with this response is the fact that not everyone defines success and worthwhile opportunity by how vocationally relevant the opportunity is. Of course I am not pursuing a graduate degree without thinking about what I will do once I leave graduate school (and without KNOWING I wouldn't want to do anything else), but the fact of the matter is that I am looking for a level of success that is defined by understanding how knowledge is created or valued, by understanding the extent to which I know what I know, by understanding the underlying assumptions of core arguments in science and politics, etc. Maybe I am not interested in attaining a 3 year degree to practice law-maybe I just want to be a better human being (and this is what will make me happiest). Bottom line, my question was how can I expect to grow and learn while making the very best of mediocre, entry-level, five day a week, nine hour a day job? At some point you hit the ceiling and it could be a while before you are afforded a different, more rewarding, and challenging opportunity. At some point you wonder why people don't value learning for the sake of learning. Thank you again.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for checking back in. There are two components to education. One is the learning for the sake of learning aspect you mentioned. The other is the credential. The credential is the expensive part. Are you seeking the knowledge or the degree? Why mortgage your future earnings to pay for the latter if it's the former you want? You can get that practically for free.

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Bowie, Md.: Ms. Seligson: What's your opinion about navel-baring blouses in an office environment?

Hannah Seligson: They are an absolute "no-no," and that's an opinion I think the vast majority of employers would echo. It's very hard to be taken seriously with your navel showing. Leave those types of garments for the beach.

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N.Y.: When I read the article "The Book on How to Thrive" I basically thought, well, so much for trying to help people not get pigeon-holed. The list of "young women tend to" is disturbing in that -- how is this article helping to dispel the stereotypes that assistant-ize women in the first place? Aren't the people who are prejudiced against women just gonna be affirmed in their prejudices after reading this? Your article still portrays women as essentially weak. The last thing we need.

Hannah Seligson: Hi N.Y. Thanks for your question. I see how you might have might have read it that way. Let me try to explain. Unfortunately, women are still at a disadvantage in the workplace. And part of reaching parity is being aware of issues, such as getting "assistant-tized," and educating woman how NOT to fall in to those traps. Women aren't weak, we just haven't been giving a primer on how to navigate the workplace. So it's more about a lack of education/information than a weakness.

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Washington, D.C.: One of my greatest personal weaknesses is that I'm always trying to please everybody. I crave feedback and constructive criticism, but often feel like I'm nagging my supervisor or giving the impression that I need to feel validated in order to function.

How can I get the feedback I need to improve my performance without giving off needy vibes?

Hannah Seligson: Thanks for your question. Asking for feedback is actually a great thing to do, but I'm concerned that you say you "crave" it. How often are you asking for feedback? I'd say the way to overcome your "nagging" feeling is to be strategic about when you ask for feedback. For example, ask for it after you hand a project, after a big client meeting, etc. Another key point about feedback is that it shouldn't be solicited for your own personal validation, it's so you can deliver a better work product. So try rewording it so it's less about how you, personally, are doing and more about your work can be improved or tweaked.

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Washington, D.C.: After an interview in early March and a second interview in early April, I finally got an offer on Thursday for a position that I am only kind of interested in. Meanwhile, I had another interview last week with an organization for a position I am really interested in, and I have a first interview coming up for a yet another position with another firm this week. For the job that gave me the offer, we have just been exchanging voicemails, and I need to call him back today to discuss this. In light of the long delay (which the hirer recognized and apologized for), would it be OK to say that I want to wait to make a decision until I hear back about the other jobs, so I can make the best decision? It would probably be another week or so. If so, how do I say this without sounding disinterested in this job or sounding too greedy or anything else?

Hannah Seligson: I would advise not letting the potential employer know that your lag time in accepting is due to the fact that you are waiting for another job. It's standard to ask for a few days to consider an offer. I'd advise that route. Say to the employer, "I'm excited about the opportunity, but could I get back to you next week?"

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Petworth, D.C.:"Alternative and compressed work schedules for parents" ... this sentence expresses the problems I have in my workplace. Those arrangements are only approved for parents. That hardly seems fair -- I have a life too!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Then ask for an alternative schedule!

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a young woman, in my first job since college. My job is OK. It keeps my interest and I have been getting raises. Mostly, I work here for the benefits and schedule. There is definitely a "Good Ol' Boys Club" here, and sometimes it bugs me. One minor example: all of the male newer hires decided to eat lunch together in one of the conference rooms, didn't invite anyone else. I don't mind that, it's their lunch, they can do as they please. What I did mind was two comments I heard: (1) as one of the guys was opening the door to the conference room, he said, "Oh, it's refreshing to be around testosterone" very loudly. When I walked by a few seconds later, a voice from the room said, "No estrogen allowed" loudly enough that I could hear it, but I don't think they meant me to. This is a pretty small example to what goes on here. What can be done?

Hannah Seligson: This is a hard situation. You have a few options. One, you can try to make light of it and try to socially ingratiate. Ask them: "Would you mind some estrogen with your lunch?" Sometimes interjecting a bit of humor can be a good tactic. But if it's reaching a level where you feel violated, harassed, or it's preventing your from doing your job, I'd bring it up with a supervisor. And finally, if the comments persist to a point where it's really bothering you, I'd consider looking for another job, where the employees are a bit more evolved.

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Rockville, Md.: What should one do about the other women employees who live down to the negative stereotypes -- have many social phone calls, act flirty and dtizy around certain men, and get emotional about professional disagreements?

Should I, as an individual, do anything to "raise the tribe?"

Hannah Seligson: It depends. Are these women your underlings or your work co-worker? If these are women that you directly supervise, I'd say that you could definitely offer some advice. If they are co-workers, it's a bit trickier -- and you have to be more subtle about it. Maybe circulating an article on one of these topics, suggesting a workshop, a speaker, etc. In other words, address these issues in a way that doesn't make it seem like you are the whistle blower. My concern in saying something direclty, if these are your coworkers, is that you don't want to alienate them.

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Just a note ...: As an assistant who has been doing this work for well over 10 years, I'm annoyed that this type of position has been placed in such a negative light in recent years. I enjoy my work, it is very fulfilling, and am recognized and appreciated for the advanced skills I bring to my position. Folks who say I don't manage or lead haven't seen me working with my attorneys when they are in the middle of a huge project and turn to me to keep them focused and manage the project to completion.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You know, you're right. Can you e-mail me after the chat?

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Petworth, D.C.: You said: "Then ask for an alternative schedule!" I did. It was denied, because I am not a parent. That's when I went out and got a new job. It was too bad, because I like where I was in many was, but that made it unacceptable.

Mary Ellen Slayter: That's what parents do, too. Good for you, voting with your feet.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Hannah. Do you have any advice on how to recover from a low starting salary in one's first job out of college? And is it customary to include health and tuition benefits in my salary history figure when applying to future jobs?

Hannah Seligson: The only way I know how to recover from a low starting salary is to negotiate very well for your next one. Don't accept their first offer, and if you can't get the employer to budge on the number, get them to agree to something. Even if it's just that you'll revisit a salary negotiation in six months rather than a year, you've still negotiated. And I don't think it's customary to include health benefits or tuition benefits in your salary history.

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Washington, D.C.: How exactly do you approach a boss who may be inadvertantly treating you like an assistant? I am an associate a law firm. My boss is great except he tends to ask me, not the male associates in the group (who are slightly more senior, but just barely), to do things that I think are more assistant work. For example, I got asked to oversee the planning of a particular party while the male associates were asked to attend the parties. I also found out that the male associates were invited to a dinner with important clients while I got stuck, yup, planning a party. I suspect there's some generational issues here -- my boss is in his 60s -- but it's really grating.

Hannah Seligson: That is so frustrating. It sounds like it's time to bring it with your boss -- and document, document, document. I'd say something along the lines of, "John, David, and Adam, have been assigned to work on these assignments. I was wondering if there was some criteria I'm not meeting. And if there is, could you tell what it is."

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Wheaton, Md.: I've been in my first job, which is an assistant >position, for almost a year. I'm not challenged in any way and I'm generally unhappy. Would it be a mistake to switch to another admin/assistant position (and risk being forever labeled an assistant), or should I stick it out until I find a job where I can actually use my degree and gain useful experience?

Hannah Seligson: Definitely don't go in to another assistant position. But first, I'd talk to your boss and express your concerns and ask him/her what he/she sees as the career trajectory for you there. If it's not congruent with what you see for yourself, move on.

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Arlington, Va.: This is a question for Ms. Seligson: I wonder if you covered women in higher tech industries in your book. While I understand that women, and especially young women, can often be "assistant-ized" in any field, I was curious as to whether you went into details about the more difficult battles those of us in high tech fields contend with -- especially as high tech fields tend to be very male-heavy. I am a patent attorney with a background in electrical engineering, and while my bosses are, for the most part, wonderful, the women I've spoken with in our industry do feel that there is sometimes a discrepancy with the way men and women are viewed, particularly with their ability to handle the work. Additionally, those of us who work with foreign clients often face even greater gender-specific hurdles. What is your advice, other than continuing to do our work well, that you can give to young women specifically in the higher tech industries to make sure we get the same recognition and notice as our male counterparts?

Hannah Seligson: Great question. And yes, I did speak to women in high tech industries. I think the best way to get the same recongition and notice as your male counterparts is to document instances where the work load is being distributed unevenly -- and then present your case to a supervisor. Coincidentally another lawyer asked this same question and my advice here is the same. Say to your boss, "I've noticed that (and give a few examples of the men) have been assigned to these high-level projects, while I've been working on X, Y, Z. Is there a reason I'm not being assigned to these projects and the men in the group are?" That should get you some recognition!

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Downtown D.C.: Today my boss said she was looking for the new intern to do "substantive" work, rather than administrative work. I'm an admin. I laughed it off and cheerfully pointed out that my work is indeed substantive. I keep the lights on and the doors open!

I wasn't actually offended, because I knew she meant no harm. If I'd actually been hurt, I would have approached her about it in private.

Anyways, should I be concerned about this? Does this mean my work is not valued? Or should I write it off as a case of foot-in-mouth disease? Overall, I do feel appreciated here.

Hannah Seligson: I'd laugh it off. But keep your eye on how long you stay in an admin role and whether it's a job that is contributing to your career path.

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Alexandria, Va.: In my small office, I'm the one who's always asked to do the admin-type work. I am also the only woman, and while I don't think it's intentional, I do wonder if this is why I am the one to be assigned these tasks. I don't mind helping out, but I'd like my counterparts to share the work -- any way to appropriately handle this?

Hannah Seligson: Yes, there is definitely a proper way to handle. First, don't always be the first person to offer up your help for admin-type work. I'd also ask the guys to chip in. Or if you are assigned an admin task, and especially if you are busy working on another project, ask your boss if he wouldn't mind asking "Pete" to collate ... for once.

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Washington, D.C.: They say old habits die hard. We have a talent crop of recent college graduates (one to three years) who are overflowing with ways to modernize our message, particularly our Web site, and reach out to the next generation (we're a non-prof. advocacy group). Many of our supervisors are resistant to change. How do you recommend getting our bosses (most of whom are in their 60s) to understand that we're not opposed to the way things have been done, but we'd like them to collaborate with us on fresh ideas?

Hannah Seligson: Ah, the generational culture clash. I'd go about just like that: suggest having a meeting on the topic of how to collaborate more/foster better office dialogue. But make sure the focus of the meeting is very specific. Circulate an agenda prior to the meeting and be extremely concrete about the issues you'll be discussing. That way you'll avoid it just becoming a gripe session about your bosses are out of touch. Or maybe even have a meeting with just the people on your level, come up with a bunch of ideas, and then present it to the higher-ups.

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D.C.: Ms. Seligson: I'm surprised that you mentioned that young women without children feel they have to work more than parents. Unfortunately, since both the young female Post career columnists are parents or about-to-be parents, they are extremely defensive when this topic is brought up. That aside, I often question why "family friendly" means simply parents with young children. I worked at a place with an extremely generous paid maternity leave, which didn't help at all the colleague who had to take two months unpaid leave to care for a seriously ill spouse. I know you have to start somewhere, but it seems short sighted to assume that once you've popped out your baby, the need for paid time off for family care is over.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree that family leave doesn't just have to mean parental leave. But I also think it's the employer's responsibility to fairly distribute the work load when people are out, whether it's to care for a child, a spouse, or a parent. Pitting us against each other is bad for morale.

And I prefer to think that becoming a mom has made me "keenly aware" of work/life challenges, not "defensive" about them.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks, Hannah. My "craving" for personal validation is more of a personal relationship problem, but that doesn't mean it never seeps into my professional life. I ask for feedback after I turn in major projects because my supervisor isn't big into scheduled reviews. I just worry that he wouldn't tell me if I was doing something wrong in day-to-day tasks (I do a lot of writing and research) and that'll come back to bite me in the behind when it's time to ask for a recommendation for graduate school.

Hannah Seligson: I totally understand. If you are asking for feedback on a regular basis, it's up to your boss to take that opportunity and run with it. It sounds like it won't come back to bite you.

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Arlington, Va. : How long have you been in the workplace for? Do you think it's better to receive advice from a 20-something author or someone who's had more experience in the workplace?

Hannah Seligson: Thanks for your question. I have been in the workplace for three years, since I gradudated in 2004. But let me clarify something here about "New Girl on the Job." The book is based on over a hundred interviews I conducted with both young women and women who have made it to their top of their fields. I thought both perspectives were equally valuable to the 20-something worker.

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Petworth: You know, Mary Ellen ... it's getting awfully frustrating to read your stuff lately. I know you're trying to work fast during the chats, but sometimes it really seems like you don't read what you're responding to before you respond, and you simply respond to what you think someone has written.

In addition, you've been starting to make some assumptions that are truly frustrating. Perhaps you don't mean to, but you are recently coming across as part of the parents are perfect, the rest of you can bite us mob.

We all, especially younger workers, suffer from other peoples' assumptions that their time is always more important than our time, that their rights trump our rights, that their priorities outweigh our priorities.

We need voices saying that old, young, partnered, single, parents or non-parents, we all need to balance our work and our lives, and we all need to work to be fair to each other. Please, stop, think and realize that you are coming across as assuming that you in parental world are better and deserve more.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree that we *all* need more flexibility. When have I said otherwise?

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Washington, D.C.: I am in my early-30s and work as a software developer. I'm one of the few women in my office. My morning routine is short and sweet and I always end up coming to work with wet hair in an up-do. Am I committing a faux pas? I ask because a few months ago someone casually joked "going for the wet look, eh?" and it's bothered me a bit ever since.

Hannah Seligson: Yes, definitely dry your hair before you go to work, especially since someone commented on it. Wet hair doesn't look professional.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions!

Hannah Seligson: Thanks for all your questions. Please feel free to e-mail me any additional questions through my Web site: www.hannahseligson.com

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