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Careeranista: Leaning In Too Far?

 

Let me introduce myself: I am female. I am a college student: a collegiette, if you will. I am set to graduate in May 2016 (if all goes according to plan), which is far enough away that I have not yet devised a concrete post-graduation game plan. Having been assimilated to the idea that job prospects after graduation are grim at best, and that every degree besides computer science will probably be irrelevant in five years’ time, I think I can speak for the current generation when I say: I need all the help I can get.

Being the precocious young collegiettte that I am, I jumped at the opportunity to write a review for Chaz Pitts-Kyser’s Careeranista: the Woman’s Guide to Success after College. In theory, if I am reading closely enough to write a (hopefully insightful) review, then I will most likely absorb some shred of wisdom to apply to my own case, right? 

Careeranista is a detailed and comprehensive career guide for young women. Pitts-Kyser is a writer, speaker, and the founder of Careeranista, a company created to inspire young women to achieve their career goals. Careeranista is the accompanying how-to manual for this project, replete with handy tips on almost every conceivable aspect of the job-landing process as well as many inspiring stories from Pitts-Kyser’s own experiences.

In addition, Careeranista addresses many tangential features of success, such as “Chapter 23: Reducing Post-College Debt” and “Chapter 20: Attaining Work-Life Balance”. Part of what makes Careeranista effective as a career-guide is Pitts-Kyser’s deftness at breaking down intimidating concepts into easy step-by-step processes. One section in which I think she does this particularly well is “Chapter 10: Negotiating Your Salary”. In this chapter, Pitts-Kyser systematically outlines salary-negotiation techniques and gives three hypothetical scenarios of salary-negotiations done right. Pitts-Kyser uses this method very effectively throughout the book.

Careeranista is divided into 32 chapters on everything from the mechanical, nitty-gritty aspects of career success, such as job searching, interviews, and applications, to more personal factors. For example, Careeranista devotes ample time to the discussion of uniquely “female” components of career success in “Chapter 15: Building a Positive Professional Image (as a woman)” and “Chapter 31: Battling Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment”.

This is a feature that distinguishes Careeranista from other books on a similar topic. In that vein, perhaps my single favorite attribute of Careeranista is that every single real-world and hypothetical example in the guide is a woman. Pitts-Kyser clearly kept her female readers keenly in mind when she sought out example role models. Many of the chapters contain “Diaries of Careeranistas,” or sample stories of successful women: “Crystal Hilliard on Getting on the Fast Track to Success” and “Lisa Quast on Looking the Part”, to name a few. In Chapter 10, the three hypothetical salary-negotiating conversations described are between three female characters—Mia, Tatyana, and Amanda—and their hypothetical employers. Pitts-Kyser does this consistently throughout the book.

While reading Careeranista, I was amused by Pitts-Kyser’s painstaking deliberation to use women as success models in the book, yet simultaneously impressed by her heroic determination to do so. Careeranista takes its approach to female post-college success very seriously. This makes perfect sense: after all, the book says in the title that it is a woman’s success guide; so who cares, really, about successful real men or how hypothetical men would negotiate a man’s salary?

Not me.

Unless, of course, as women, we are aspiring to be successful in a way similar to men. Unless, of course, as women, we aspire to negotiate our salaries like men, and not like women; to have a man’s salary, and not a woman’s salary. Ah, semantics.

By virtue of being a woman’s success guide and diving so audaciously into gender-specific aspects of career success, Careeranista is teetering on the edge of a familiar argument: is “success” for women fundamentally different than success for men in the workplace, and otherwise? Is the way that each arrives at “success” fundamentally different, along gender-specific lines?

As I was mulling over these difficult questions, a name that immediately came to mind was Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Sandberg has been making a lot of headlines in the past year because of her views on this very topic.  

One of Sandberg’s pet projects is the campaign to “ban bossy,” which explores the childhood roots of gender discrimination and in particular, how the language of gender discrimination affects women’s abilities to become leaders in the workplace. According to The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, the campaign to “ban bossy” is “trying to revive the notion that society is systematically silencing girls because of oppressive stereotyping” based on the presumption that the word bossy “makes girls feel bad… destroys their fragile self-esteem and discourages them from being more assertive.”

Wente is critical of Sandberg’s campaign, however. She is quick to point out that whatever “crisis of self-confidence” has been pointed out in young women today is not hugely relevant when you consider that “this crisis does not prevent (girls) from academically out-achieving the boys by quite a wide margin, or from asserting themselves in sports, volunteer work and student government, or from flooding the medical, law, and business schools, or from out-earning their husbands.” As she so eloquently puts it, “These days, it’s not the girls who need a leg up. It’s the boys.”

“Ban ‘bossy’?” Wente says, “Suck it up, girls.”

 Sandberg’s book Lean In, published last year, takes the gender debate outside of the classroom. She claims that women struggle to fulfill their full potential in the workplace because they are forced to make the decision between professional success and personal fulfillment—a choice that men do not face (Fadra). In a TED talk several years ago on why so few female leaders exist in the workplace, Sandberg stated the primary reason as being that “women systematically underestimate their own abilities.” She suggests that oppressive stereotyping in adolescent girls continues on into adulthood.

What can we take away from all of this? The point is the gender debate is alive and well and is targeting its focus these days on aspiring young women, who happen to also be the target audience of Pitts-Kyser’s Careeranista.

Careeranista, like Sandberg’s Lean In, operates under the assumption that young women might need MORE help finding success in their future careers than their male counterparts on account of their gender. Women, unlike men, will always have to battle gender-related issues and obstacles in their careers.

That in itself is not a particularly radical statement, and likely does not offend most young women. It is an idea that we have become accustomed to through the media. The latest statistic that I have seen reports that women make, on average, “77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men,” (PolitiFact). I hope every woman in the country finds this and other such statistics as appalling as I do.

Gender discrimination takes on other forms, too. Sexual harassment sometimes occurs in the workplace. Occasionally, women don’t get the promotions they deserve JUST because they are women or exhibit stereotypical personality traits: for example, being less willing to promote themselves or because “women tend to be less competitive than men, less willing to take risks, and uncomfortable handling conflicts head-on” (Pitts-Kyser, 155).

It is easy to jump on the band-wagon with Pitts-Kyser and Sandberg: to be positively shocked that 21st century women are having to fight against such blatant discrimination to fulfill their career aspirations, and to seek out a gender-related answer to this gender-related problem.

This argument, however, is not quite as black-and-white as it may seem. It is not as simple as a matter of feminists vs. sexists, careeranistas vs. Corporate America, us vs. them. And I find myself in opposition to Pitts-Kyser and Sandberg on a few finer points, leading me to arrive at a different solution to the same problem.

I became torn: should I take Careeranista at face value, and leave it at that? Or, should I dare to open up the gender debate can of worms, which is lurking beneath its surface? I decided that, given the relevance and urgency of the issue at hand, a thorough book review of Careeranista can only be accomplished in the context of that wider discourse. So, let’s dive in.  

It is my opinion that as a society we spend far too much time talking about gender differences in the workplace and risk counter-productivity by having that discussion. Overemphasis on gender differences puts women at an automatic disadvantage. The reason being, men have always had the advantage in the workplace and in Corporate America for purely historical and traditional reasons. These reasons are not founded on principles of gender differences. Even if they were, however, there would be no way that women could gain the upper-hand in that discussion because history is not on our side.

Ideas about gender differences in the workplace and different definitions of success along gender lines are dangerous because they suggest that women’s professional capacities are fundamentally different than men’s—capacities which are defined by stereotypically feminine, non-competitive, and weak character traits—and that these are what is getting in the way of women’s success. This creates a psychological disadvantage in young women by training them to be hypersensitive to their gender and inherent disadvantages that they may have at work. It is as if we are telling them outright that they are playing for a losing team, which is defeatist and ridiculous. That in itself compounds any disadvantage women may be historically predisposed to possess. If young women are to be successful in the workplace, something has got to give. And honestly, Corporate America is not going to budge.

Careeranista, on the other hand plays in to the idea that women will always have to fight discrimination in the workplace, or at the very least be sensitive to their gender when seeking success in their future careers. It tailors its advice accordingly. By talking about career goals in gender subjective terms, however, Careeranista falls back on traditional gender stereotypes to support its claims and fails to make a positive contribution towards eliminating gender discrimination.

For example, in “Chapter 15: Building a Positive Professional Image”, Pitts-Kyser discusses “identities” of women in the workplace with whom successful careeranistas should avoid emulating or interacting (106). She devotes several pages to detailed profiles of very stereotypical women of the workplace: “Ms. That’s Not My Job”, “Ms. Booty Call”, and “Ms. Woe Is Me” to name a few (107). Acknowledging these workplace stereotypes so openly, however, seems to me to be very counterproductive. If we want to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace, we should certainly not categorize our female coworkers into these preset, confining, debilitating, and often negative profile molds.

On the other hand, the ideal “professional image” in this chapter is projected as First Lady Michelle Obama. What are the qualities that make her so amazing at what she does? For one thing, “men are in awe of her because she possesses both beauty and brains” (Pitts-Kyser, 115). This brings us back to square one, however. If “female success” is a real thing, then it must not be reliant to any degree on male-approval. That notion of “fragile self-esteem” haunts this entire discourse.

In a vein similar to Sandberg’s Lean In, Pitts-Kyser cautions women against trying to conform to male standards and perceptions of the workplace. In “Chapter 7: Evaluating Job Offers”, Pitts-Kyser urges young women to consider “the female-to-male ratio and the primary positions women hold (entry level, middle management, management)” when making a final decision on a job (54). “If everyone interviewing you is male, or it’s apparent that women hold very few mid- to senior- level positions,” she claims, “this may not bode well for you” (Pitts-Kyser, 56).

In “Chapter 19: Succeeding in Corporate America”, Careeranista suggests that for women, the term “Corporate America” can bring to mind unappealing images: “We think of it as a somewhat unwelcoming place—a place that has traditionally been harder for us to enter and succeed in than our male counterparts” (147).

She also suggests that by virtue of being male-dominated, workplaces can be inherently discriminatory. “Ever wonder why there aren’t more women’s stalls or restrooms in the buildings you enter? I am totally guessing here, but I bet it’s because men dominate the architecture and design industry and it just doesn’t occur to them that we use the restroom more frequently than they do,” Pitts-Kyser writes (149).

It is implied that women should be able to choose when and how they work so that they do not have to subject themselves to gender discrimination of any kind. That is true, but only to a degree. Women should not have to put up with sexual harassment, certainly; but they should not be deterred from male-dominated workplaces because of the “mental oppression” of male perceptions which differ from their own. Why? Because if you don’t take the job, someone else will. As far as I am concerned, there is only one way to turn male-dominated Corporate America on its head: get as many women in the workplace as possible until we no longer speak of it in those terms. Furthermore, if we look for evidence to prove that the workplace is male-dominated and sexist, we will probably find it… but what then? That does not benefit our cause in the slightest but may, once again, be a deterrent to success.

Pitts-Kyser also suggests that because female perceptions and principles of the workplace are different than those of the male-dominated workplace, women may have a tougher time finding success in their careers, “As women, we tend to want to know that our work—no matter what it is—is meaningful in some way. Yes, we go to work to make money, but that’s not the driving force.” (150). Pitts-Kyser discusses some fundamental personality differences between women and men. For example, “Many of us have been raised to compete against ourselves, do the best we can, and of course, to share. Men, however, don’t receive these messages. Instead, through team sports, parental raising, the media, and, some would argue—their male makeup—men are taught that if someone is going to win, it better be them” (151). But how can we succeed in Corporate America if we don’t believe we can do it? If you don’t want to win, you won’t. If you don’t want to play by the rules of money-driven, uber-competitive Corporate America, then you won’t get to play at all.

These are not gender-based perceptions at all, but simply parameters of the workplace that all college graduates are forced to work with and acknowledge. It is entirely up to the individual if she chooses to play the game or not, but the alternatives are few.

One statistic from “Chapter 27: Can I be my own boss?” asserts that, “If US-based women-owned businesses were their own country, they would constitute the fifth largest GDP in the world, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research” (231).

So, what do we do? I suppose we could start a woman’s colony, but that is not exactly practical (although certainly appealing, at least in premise). The discussion on gender differences in career success often implies that women don’t belong in male-dominated Corporate America, which is not the point that should be made her, at all.  

If we don’t put our game faces on and aspire to be part of Corporate America, male-dominated and sexist or not, then Corporate America will always and forever be male-dominated and sexist. The change must be made from the inside and out, by adapting the system, and not demanding special treatment before we’ve even gotten our feet wet.

“Chapter 31: Battling Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment” is prefaced by the following quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a figure in the women’s rights movement:

“It would be ridiculous to talk of male and female atmospheres, male and female springs or rains, male and female sunshine… how much more ridiculous is it in relation to mind, to soul, to thought, where there is undeniably no such thing as sex” (Pitts-Kyser, 256).

So, do women operate in fundamentally different ways from men in their approaches to success in the workplace? If yes, then there must be a female mind, a female soul, and female thought. If not, then there is no need to explicitly define “success” along gender lines.

As you can see, we have come full circle. In all of this discussion, I would like to note that I am not discrediting Pitts-Kyser, here, or Sandberg, either; I am merely hoping to shed light on the debate as it currently stands. One cannot discuss gender-specific issues in the workplace without picking a side. Pitts-Kyser and I have simply fallen on opposite sides of the fence on the same battlefield. We are fighting the same demons, in the end: sexism in the workplace. We are just fighting it in different ways. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the discussion, Sheryl Sandberg’s work, and Careeranista before you decide where you stand. 

The following works were used as sources for this article:

Ban 'bossy'? Suck it up, girls by Margaret Wente

Why I'd Rather Lean In to Tina Fey than Sheryl Sandberg by Fadra Nally

And of course: 

Careeranista: the Woman's Guide to Success After College by Chaz Pitts-Kyser.

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Katie Meikle

Boise State

Katie Meikle, also known as Meeks, Meikle or Pumpkin, is a junior and transfer student from Tufts University in Boston, currently studying health sciences at Boise State. Although a Boise native, Katie spent her entire high school career overseas, split between Japan and Taiwan. Katie's writing interests include fashion, healthy eating, mixology, and campus cuties... of course! She loves the great outdoors, traveling, her two dogs, Lexi and Hobbs, days at the beach, walks on sunny days, and her mom's cooking. Favorite quote: don't be a drag, just be a queen.
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