Career Advice: One Thing They Don’t Teach Young Women In College


I was a married mom of two when I went back to school to earn my BA in Writing. Since I graduated in 2005, I’ve stayed in touch with one of my old college professors. We meet a few times a year to catch each other up on what’s going on in our respective worlds.

We’ve also discussed the possibility of me teaching a class. The conversation always turns to the one class she’s always wanted to teach, a class that hasn’t yet been created. This is a class specifically for young college women on how to handle inappropriate behavior by male counterparts in the workplace. This is not an idea that came form nowhere. She’s faced it. And every time she brings it up to professional women she knows, they nod slowly, and admit that, yes, they’ve faced it too. I have, as well. None of us wants to talk about it. But not one of the women she approached denied that it is absolutely an issue.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation like this. If not, the odds are good you will. Here are a few tips for dealing with unprofessional behavior in the workplace.

#1 RECOGNIZE IT. Do not ignore the signs. Honestly, many of the women both of us have spoken to prefaced their personal story with words like “harmless” and “flattering” and then shrugged as if to say it comes with the territory. It does not. It should not. And you’re smarter than that.

#2 SHUT IT DOWN. IMMEDIATELY. Let’s say you’re meeting with a new client. Towards the end of a great professional discussion, you mention that your hour is just about up. He responds that he could sit with an attractive woman like you all day. What do you do? First, realize that this is not okay. Would he say this if you were a man? Would you ever say this to one of your male clients? Not likely. It’s best not to give any hint that you enjoyed the compliment. A quick, polite smile and move the subject right back to business. “Well, I promised you I’d be brief so, let me leave you with one last thought…” then shake his hand and be on your way.

#3 PLAY DUMB…? Once, a man I worked for offered me tickets to an NHL game. As I took them from him, he said, “You know… I’ve got baseball tickets, too.” I remember feeling immediately as though the conversation had shifted. The very air in the room seemed heavier. So, I did what any smart young woman would do… I played dumb. And in just this instance, I don’t regret it. My head knew exactly what he was saying. My heart felt deflated (as this was someone I greatly looked up to). And my choice to pretend I had no idea what was happening turned out to be the right one. I looked him in the eye, smiled, and said “Oh, no thanks, I’m not really a baseball fan!” thanked him again for the hockey tickets, and left.

#4 DO NOT GO BACK FOR MORE. Here’s the rub on #3… once you realize what’s happened, you must avoid any future similar situations. Sure, the tickets may have been just a kind gesture, but don’t take them again. Don’t ask. Don’t accept. Just don’t. Go to Done deal.

#5 KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SELLING. We’ve all heard the advice about dressing professionally. So let’s assume you understand that dressing, or acting, provocatively at the office is a no-no. But there are other ways that you can be sending the wrong signals. A few years ago, a young woman asked me for help writing her resume and the copy for her new online portfolio. She had just graduated from college with a graphic design degree, had a great deal of talent and a successful internship under her belt. She sent me the link to her online portfolio so that I could preview it before writing the copy, but when I clicked over, I was greeted with multiple pictures of her – not her work. One professional head-shot is sufficient. Several full body photographs with suggestive smiles are most certainly not. It’s a shame that young women learn to use their looks so early on. While it will most definitely earn you a reputation, it’s not the one you want, and will only take you so far. Make sure that the brand you creative for yourself is consistent in every format and conveys the intended message.

#6 DON’T KEEP IT TO YOURSELF. If it does get out of hand, report it. Yes, it’s embarrassing. But if you don’t tell someone about it, it may only get worse. Go directly to your supervisor and/or your HR department. I have a good (male) friend who was hit on by his (male) boss. He dealt with it on his own until he was sure what was happening. Then he went to HR. As a heterosexual, married man, you can imagine his embarrassment. But, it was the right thing to do. And it worked. As it turned out, he wasn’t the first employee to be targeted. But he was the last – at least at that company. His boss was fired.

#7 DON’T ASSUME THE WORST. It’s a bummer really, that a few bad apples can ruin it for the rest of us, isn’t it? The truth is, there are a lot of smart, professional, good men in every industry. And sometimes, their offer of seats to the ball game, or a pre-work day coffee are nothing more than that. Be careful not to judge them all as though they are cut from the same cloth. Listen to your inner voice – most times, she’s correct. And if you have doubts about the sincerity of any offer or invitation, turn it down.

There are some things we just don’t learn in school that are imperative for our success: business etiquette, networking, and delegating, to name a few. Dealing with unwanted advances at work is just another thing for which to be prepared.


Looking for more career advice? Try these posts on Project Eve:

Dazzled By A Shinier Toy? -Career Advice from an Executive Search Expert

Career Advice & Tips for College Students

Christine Lagarde on career advice

Career newbie guide: websites and emails

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