February 15, 2012
'Sharpen Your Heels': Sound, and wobbly, career advice
Normally I bristle at advice tailored to either men or women. So I admit that my reaction upon receiving the newly released lilac-colored book "Sharpen Your Heels: Mrs. Moneypenny's Career Advice for Women" was to roll my eyes and set it aside in favor of The Economist, the newspaper, Facebook, the back of the cereal box -- anything that didn't scream, "Here you go, little (high-heeled) worker lady, information packaged just for you."
And then I heard a story. An acquaintance of mine (female) is a general manager overseeing the mobile-advertising division of a media company, one of more than half a dozen executive managers of equal rank. All other managers are male.
Recently the boss directed all of the execs to move from their private offices onto the floor to better meld with daily operations. At first, no one budged. But the boss made repeated visits to my acquaintance's office urging her to move, and finally sent the movers in. After resettling on the floor, she noticed that none of the male execs had left their offices. And they weren't forced to.
I picked back up "Sharpen Your Heels," a narrative of practical advice and motivational boosters delivered in a digestible, sometimes hackneyed way. It's like your Hermes-scarf-wearing, take-no-prisoners grandma sitting you down for some career/life coaching and proverbs.
Directed at all female workers, from students to those returning after an employment gap, the book works best when it delivers smart tips and reminders: Identify and maintain a network; never make assumptions; gain "financial literacy"; don't use age as an excuse; analyze the opportunities a boost in education (such as an MBA) would offer.
The book gets foggy, and less useful, when it delivers mixed messages about work/family balance and tries to address the oft-exposed myth of women "having it all." Moneypenny, a British columnist for the Financial Times whose real name is Heather McGregor, writes that she does "not usually encourage women to work part-time," even, it seems, if mothers desire to spend more time with their young children while keeping a foot in the workforce.
Instead, she counsels: Work full-time, aim high, build your career into that senior position where you are finally in charge of yourself. Then, she says, when you want to attend a child's soccer game or performance, just mark it in your unassailable schedule, over which you will have autonomy in your senior position.
Well, sorry, it doesn't always work like that. Not every working mother has a team of nannies and a stay-at-home spouse, as the author admits to, to pick up the parenting slack while she races to the corner office. She might not want that.
In discouraging women who seek flex schedules, she promotes the very stereotypes that hurt women in the workplace: Are you just after "time to get your hair done?" she prods. Shudder. Now that is something my grandmother might say.
In telling a story about a successful, woman-founded business that employs a team of mostly part-time mothers, Moneypenny regrettably adds: "Can you imagine how organized and tidy that office must be?" Ugh.
And I think the author cops out when acknowledging that times-they-be-a-changin' but not so fast, and better for women workers to meld themselves into the status quo now and "change things for their sisters in the workplace" down the road. No specific schedule of deliverables given on that one.
Ultimately, I'm not sure how relevant this advice is for the younger, innovative digital generation, which defines "career" differently than my parents' or even mine. It's definitely not stomping stereotypes like flats under a business skirt.
But women undeniably face particular challenges and opportunities in their career lives, and a plan for success can be built from good advice. I think we're smart enough to parse it out.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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