In the 21st century workforce, women have been stepping up and speaking out about challenges they face and as college students, many women find themselves questioning what the workplace will look like for them in a few short years. Communications professor Dr. Jenn Billinson discussed this issue, among many others, at our 3 C’s event on November 9th. When I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Billinson following the event, she provided wisdom that I believe every woman should hear. Dr. Billinson is not only engaging and (as many of her students can attest to) compassionate, but understanding of the changes that are taking place in our society that impact all college women.
What challenges in their careers do women face that men do not?
“A lot of industries – business, academia – that we look at in our capitalistic society were not created by women. Women did not have a seat at the table in determining what a work week looks like, deciding what things make you a good employee, so you have men who created these standards – and men who probably mean very well – but women face different challenges. Women are expected to provide emotional labor, so they have an expectation of ‘supporting’ people by being a cheerleader and listening to people with personal problems in ways that men do not feel that they have to. Women are also expected to be the primary caregiver in terms of taking care of children, or, even in families where there are no children, taking care of the household. A lot of times you have women in the workforce who have to jobs – being a mom and working, or being a wife and working. Even in a very progressive relationship, we still have these gender roles.”
How are women socialized differently than men, specifically in the workforce?
“We don’t socialize women to stand up for what they feel they deserve in their careers. I feel like this is changing a little bit and I love it, especially when I see millennial women who are able to say ‘This is what I want’ and ‘This is what I don’t want,’ and who are able to come to the table and feel comfortable in standing up for themselves and knowing their worth and their value. One of the reasons we have the pay differential is because women are not socialized to negotiate. When we are coming out of college, it can be hard to push for something – and you don’t want to go crazy, like ‘Give me a corner office and car!’ but it pays to do a little bit of research and see what median salaries are and negotiate for that. It feels awkward at first, but men are socialized to ask for it, and in business it’s not viewed as bad to ask for those things. We don’t teach women to do that, and I think that’s a unique challenge that women face.”
One way Dr. Billinson suggests that women can excel in their careers (and lives) is to find a mentor. To her, the professors she confided in during her undergraduate years made a monumental difference in her life, and she says that college women need to look for and connect with professionals that can advise them in their careers.
How do you suggest college women should go about finding a mentor?
“When you’re in school as an undergrad, I think that it can be helpful to get a professor as a mentor – even if you are not going into academia, they can help you kind of navigate some of the things that are specifically challenging to women in professional areas. And, I think that we have access to the internet and resources that we never had before, so it you are able to find someone …. and find people that have jobs that you like or aspire to have – it cannot hurt to reach out to people. The worst thing that can happen is that they don’t respond. I highly doubt that people are going to be like ‘Get away!’ or ‘Leave me alone, I’m busy!’ If women who are higher up in their career really stop to think about it, they did not get there on their own, they got there with help from other people. So it’s not just a matter of, ‘I want to help my students,’ it makes me feel good be able to give back what was given to me, and I think that a lot of women – and people in business – see that. With social media, and especially with Twitter, it can never hurt to reach out and say ‘I admire your work.’ And make it clear you’re not asking anything of them – you’re not asking them to give you a job, that may come from it, but say ‘I would love to talk to you about how you got to where you are.’ You have to ask for it, which is really hard. I consider myself a shy person, terrible at networking, and if social media existed as it is now back when I was thinking I wanted to be a reporter or a journalist, I may have gone a different route. I think if you are shy, or you think it’s awkward, reaching out online or digitally is a great option. And as for professors, go to their office hours! Some of my best relationships with students, the students that I have gone on to write recommendations for in academia or in business, are the ones that just come and just talk during office hours.”
How did your mentor(s) impact your life?
“I’m in academia, so it’s a little different than people going into business or non-academic jobs. I had female professors who took an active interest in me, and who also were super compassionate. They were able to see me as a person, who I felt comfortable talking to when I was struggling, and I certainly had my struggles as an undergraduate. So those are the people that I think of when I think of professors who wrote me the grad school letters, who were there for me when I just needed to talk or was having a hard time. I was really lucky to see that and I think that we socialize women to do a lot of emotional labor that we don’t socialize men to. I have taken advantage of that and it has benefited me, and it is something that I have tried to mirror myself to let my students know that I am interested in them academically but I am also interested in them as a person as well. Because I genuinely care.”