The Terrible Career Advice Women Give Each Other

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 1:56 PM EDT

When I was starting my career, I was in the software industry, where there are few women. And then I moved into the tech startup world, where there are even fewer women. The whole time, I have found that older men gave me great career advice and older women gave me bad advice. I am not sure why this is, but I am pretty sure that most women around my age (43) have had similar experiences. They just won't talk about it publicly.

Here are the three worst pieces of advice I have received about how to succeed as a woman in the workplace. I'm passing it on so that when you hear it, you'll know to toss it into the mental discard pile. 1) You can wait to have kids. There's no rush. Of course there's a rush. Your chances of having a Down Syndrome baby skyrocket after you are older than 35. If you have two kids after age 30, you will probably have a miscarriage. Sixty percent of women do. And you'll want time between kids. Most women do. Which means it will take you five years to have two kids, if everything goes well. If everything does not go well, you are in the fertility danger zone. Don't tell me there are exceptions to the rule. So what? You want to play roulette with your biological clock? This is an odds game.

So, if you want to be pregnant when you're 30, you need to be married by 28, because marriages do best if there is time alone before kids. If you want to get married by 28 you probably need to find the guy at age 26. So you'd better get cracking; In fact, you should probably get married first and then focus on a career.

You think I'm out of my mind? This research is so well understood that top business schools are letting women in earlier than men to accommodate the biological clock.

2) Report sexual harassment, even if it's just a minor infraction. This was good advice for the 1970s, when people didn't believe it was happening. But now everyone knows it happens all the time. Please find me one woman who did not experience some sort of inappropriate behavior from a man during her first five years of work. We all know it's happening. But we also know that there is no longer a salary gap between men and women, and we know that there are more unemployed men than women. So it's hard to show that women are actually victimized at work today.

What there is, instead, is a major acknowledgment among senior management that the company does not want to be embroiled in sexual harassment lawsuits. They are terrible for companies for a range of reasons. So human resources people are trained to protect the company from these lawsuits. Which means as soon as a woman complains of harassment, the company does everything it's legally obliged to do to protect itself from a lawsuit. Companies are not legally obligated to comfort the woman. HR's job is to protect the company.

And, the retribution against women who report harassment is huge. Sure, it's illegal. But it happens all the time. So there's widespread consensus that women shouldn't report harassment. Besides, you can handle it yourself. Men harass women all over the place, not just at work.

3. Read business books to become a good leader. Forget it. Most business books are written by men, and the latest research shows that men and women lead differently. Above all, women who lead like women do better than women who try to lead like men. This is not surprising. Because people who are authentic -- really true to themselves -- do better at work. You want to know what book was most helpful to me in my career? The Sensuous Woman. I found it on my parents' bookshelf sometime during grade school, when I knew so little about the mechanics of sex that I had to read the book five times to figure out what was going on. But by the end of my multi-year study of The Sensuous Woman, I learned something important: If you are your true to yourself, and do what feels right to you, then you will be good in bed. Once I internalized that, I realized the same is true with leadership. Good leaders are, above everything else, their true selves. If you cannot be your true self, then no book will make you a good leader. So spend time on self-knowledge instead of business books.

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