With women in the workplace a hot topic of discussion, it's common to read and hear career advice directed toward women in particular. And while this is worthwhile given the challenges women face, some of it reflects troubling biases against women. Sexist career advice is often disguised as a form of empowerment.
There is a lot of good work advice out there for women, and it could really help anyone regardless of gender. For example, we could all stand to have better work-life balance and ask for a raise when we believe we deserve it (or even when we don't). But when women are told to do something that men don't hear, we should take note.
Women receive advice with sexist undertones in many areas of their lives, after all. In our love lives, we're taught to "play hard to get," while men are taught to pursue what they want. And we're given all sorts of suggestions about how to raise our kids that men don't get.
When it comes to the workplace, here are some common pieces of advice that contain hints of sexism, even if they're given with good intentions.
"Your 20s Are The Time To Focus On Your Career"
We often tell people, especially women, that their 20s are the time to really throw themselves into their work — the implication being that in their 30s and afterward, their focus will be on family. But we should be able to prioritize our work at any point in our lives, including after we have kids, and getting burnt out in our 20s won't help with that.
"Speak In A Low Register"
Citing research showing that people take deeper voices more seriously, people sometimes advise women to speak in as low a vocal register as they can. But rather than telling women to accommodate people's preferences for men and people who act like men, we should be teaching people to take women more seriously as they are.
"Act Like A Team Player"
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg advises that women project "niceness" and frame their interests as interest in what's best for the group so that they'll receive less sexist backlash. This reflects the common advice for women to behave in a way that won't threaten people. But this forces women to conform to stereotypes in order to fit in, rather than challenging the idea that self-interest is a negative trait in a woman.
Asking people to look professional is one thing, and slut-shaming is another — but the former can come dangerously close to the latter. If our colleagues choose to treat a low-cut shirt or short skirt as a distraction or an invitation, they're the ones being sexually inappropriate at work.
"Don't Talk Like A Valley Girl"
Uptalk, saying "like," and other "valley girl" speech tactics can actually be useful, but they're often looked down upon simply because they're associated with young women. Women are smarter than we give them credit for, and they've developed these speech tactics to connect with listeners and command their attention. So, rather than policing the way women talk — which people will find a way to take issue with no matter what — we should be focusing on what they're saying.
"Stop Competing With Other Women And Help Them Succeed"
This one sounds feminist on the surface, right? But we need to stop criticizing women and acknowledge all the ways they are already helping one another, not demand more labor from them. The idea that women are out to get one another and need to be told to be nice stems from a harmful stereotype that women are catty. We should be focusing at least as much on how men can support women and gender minorities in their workplaces, not holding women responsible for a problem they didn't create.