It was 1976, and The Milwaukee Sentinel was headlining: “Sexism is Pinpointed in Career Advice”. More than thirty years after, the British paper The Daily Mail, reported that sexist advice is presently damaging the job prospects for girls, as they are encouraged to take on particular industries or roles, while being diverted from others.
The Milwaukee Sentinel quoted some advice that was being given out to women back in the 70s, which read something like: “Good posture, attractive glasses, manicured hands, smooth arms and legs, proper girdles to firm buttocks – all enhance the physical qualities we have inherited. The secretary who does not make the most of her physical attributes is not doing herself justice.”
This was the advice women in the 70s were getting in career education materials. And even while wording may have evolved over the course of thirty years, career advice is still stained with sexist remarks and recommendations.
Decades later, the findings referenced by The Daily Mail show information from a 2007 survey which revealed that in the UK only one in five girls is being encouraged to take on a career in IT, business, engineering or construction, even if salaries are high in these industries.
Generally, girls are recommended to take on teaching, childcare, and hairdressing.
Researchers Athena Vongalis-Macrow and Andrea Gallant, have done extensive research on women and leadership, finding mesmerizing dos and don’ts pieces of advice for working women. They quote the following piece from one of the books they consulted for research:
“Competence is only table stakes. It’s what gets you in the door. It’s expected that you’ll be competent, but competence alone won’t move you forward. Research showed that about 55 percent of your credibility comes from how you look. How you sound accounts for an additional 38 percent. Only 7 percent of your credibility is based on what you say. If you don’t look the part, you won’t be recognized as a competent professional – no matter how smart or educated you are.”
The book “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers”, also provides an anecdote where a male boss points out that in order to overcome career barriers, a female employee should speak up, be a staff advocate, and “maybe start wearing makeup.”
The author of the book highlights that women can either “hear the comment as just another sexist remark – or as a valuable insight into what people expect as you climb the ladder.”
As a female professional myself, I’m shocked with these remarks. As Vongalis-Macrow and Gallant point out, the advice is well-intentioned, but “it traps women into a social vacuum of the 1950s.” These pieces of advice further the social expectations placed by gender roles, particularly towards how women should look, sound, and act like in the workplace.
Vongalis-Macrow and Gallant’s research on women leaders has led them to advocate for step-forward leadership, rather than the outdated Stepford view. In a blog piece for the Harvard Business Review, they present the need to “identify and promote the true leadership qualities that women can bring to the workplace,” while avoiding the shadow of the Stepford “rules” which give people false expectations of what women should be like in the workplace.
All these sexist recommendations damage women’s career perspectives, since they are founded on outdated gender stereotypes. And if it’s outdated, it probably won’t take women anywhere these days.
Women must be the first to join the move towards a step-forward leadership. Women should be examined, reported upon, and discussed with an emphasis in the positive qualities they bring to the workplace. Women must help other women advance in their careers. Women must inspire others, and collaborate through good leadership.
Watch out! Women should be helped out not because we are women, but rather because we have shown that we have the skills, capabilities, and are truly deserving of being considered great at what we do based on our performance, not our nail polish, posture, or tone of voice.
After findings such as the ones quoted by The Daily Mail, the British government outlawed sexist career advice in 2008, forcing schools to provide students with impartial support and avoid encouraging stereotypical jobs.