Study Debunks Myths About How To Get Ahead

Last Updated Oct 14, 2011 8:01 AM EDT

Make sure you get credit for your work. Take on so-called 'stretch' assignments. Let your boss know you're willing to work long hours. Network with bigwigs. That's how ambitious professionals are supposed to get ahead, right?

Except that it doesn't seem to work that well. A new study by Catalyst shows that those strategies actually have a pretty low rate of success for women who try them. In fact, the study showed that taking on new assignments to develop extra skills and letting the boss know you're willing to work long hours had zero impact on women's advancement or salaries.

Where's the money?
Catalyst studied 3,345 young professionals, each of whom was fresh out of an MBA program when they were first surveyed. All of them worked full-time, and none had taken time off for self-employment, to work part-time, to travel or take care of family members. They were then asked which career advancement strategies they had used, such as staying in touch with recruiters, networking, and taking on novel assignments. They also were asked how much money they made and what their position was within their firm. The findings:
  • Most strategies for career advancement don't work for women. Out of all the strategies that are supposed to help women achieve parity in their careers with men, only one--making sure their achievements are known--had any correlation with increased salary levels.
  • Networking does help. It didn't necessarily help women make more money, but gaining access to people in power helped both men and women get promoted.
  • Looking for other jobs works for men. Looking for other jobs and indicating a willingness to work long hours helped men get ahead, but didn't help women at all.
  • Job-hopping helps men, but women get paid more if they work their way up through the ranks at one place. Men who switched jobs between the beginning of the study and 2008 were paid $13,743 more than men who stayed put.
  • Female job-hoppers were penalized. They got paid a whopping $53,472 less than women who stuck with their first employer.
  • Women do ask for more money--eventually. At their first job out of B-School, 31% of women and 50% of men said they asked for more money during the hiring process. But when surveyed about their current job in 2008, 47% of women and 52% of men said they had tried to negotiate for more money.
To hustle, or not to hustle?
Catalyst also grouped these professionals into four groups according to their level of activity in promoting themselves and trying to advance their career, and whether these efforts were focused primarily within their companies or outside them.
  • More men than women got big jobs. Among those who were most active in seeking promotion both inside and outside the company, 21% of men had achieved a senior executive position by 2008, compared to 11% of women. These men also did better than any other group of men.
  • Among women, it didn't much matter how proactive they were. Only the least pro-active group of women (labeled 'coasters' by Catalyst) seemed in lag in professional recognition. Among the other three groups, being more or less aggressive didn't seem to have any impact on their achievement.
  • In each of the three more pro-active groups of workers, men advanced more rapidly than women.
  • The wage gap persists: In their first post-MBA job, men earned 4,600 more than women, on average. By the time of the 2008 survey, that gap had increased to $31,258.
Why would supposedly no-brainer career strategies--like asking for stretch assignments to show what you can do and your willingness to learn--work for men but not women?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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