Like scores of women in just about any career you can name, Kristen Salvatore has, at times, not been taken seriously at work. Despite being vice president and commercial director for esports sponsorships and events at the video-streaming service Twitch, in San Francisco, the tech industry veteran from Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. is well-versed in the subtle (and not-so-subtle) bias she faces as a woman in a male-dominated field. Still, she was taken aback when, at a previous job, one of her male colleagues turned to her in the middle of a meeting and said, “Let me explain this to you in a way that you’ll understand.” What made the comment even more stinging was that Salvatore was the only woman in the room. “He was a game developer who didn’t know me very well and just assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about, despite the fact that I was vice president at the company,” she says. “So, I was forced to set him straight.”
While Salvatore doesn’t face this kind of gender bias every day, she encounters it often enough that it affects how she approaches her job. “Having your competence questioned regularly is the kind of burden that my male coworkers don’t really have to worry about,” she says, adding that she uses these encounters as motivation. “I know I have to push that much harder to make my work speak for itself.” She likens her approach to Ginger Rogers, in that she tackles the same projects the men in her department do, except she does them all backwards and in heels.
At a time when women are the primary breadwinners in 42 percent of U.S. households, many continue to find it challenging to achieve success in the workplace relative to their male counterparts. Women still face barriers when it comes to career options, leadership roles, and cultural pressures placed on how they should look and comport themselves in the workplace. These challenges go beyond the notorious gender wage gap that pays full-time working women in the U.S. roughly 80 percent, on average, of what men make in similar positions. Women are also woefully underrepresented in corporate C-suites, making up a mere 14.2 percent of the top-five leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies. And while this is the first year that three of the 10 highest paid CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women, only 25 of the companies in this index have a woman at the helm.
All too often, ingrained beliefs and societal norms surrounding gender roles and child-rearing responsibilities influence the type of careers women pursue. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, for instance, roughly 79 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are women, while 80 percent of software developers are men. Of course, the male-dominated field pays better despite the fact that teaching requires a college degree while programming doesn’t (though one is encouraged). When it comes to careers that don’t require a college degree (though some vocational school is required), men commonly wear electrician hats (97 percent are male), which pays significantly more, on average, than the administrative assistant positions staffed primarily (94 percent) by women.
“There are real obstacles, but one of the barriers is ourselves,” says Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO and co-founder of WEConnect International, a Washington, DC-based non-profit that connects more than 6,000 women entrepreneurs from more than 100 countries with potential corporate buyers of their products and services. “As half of the world’s population, we aren’t reaching our potential. We have to own that. To make a change, we have to take risks and be brave.”
But to make bold changes, we must first diagnose the problems. “There’s work to be done on how to we empower ourselves,” says Vazquez. “It’s an uphill battle, but nonetheless, if we get organized there’s nothing we can’t do. But we have to know what we want and be organized to coordinate on that action.” What holds women back as individuals and as a gender? To help you take charge of your career and get you where you want to go, we’ve asked some of the smartest, most accomplished women we know to share their most practical, honest, and essential advice.
Stick your neck out
The only way to get the career you want is to boldly go for it. “Women are socially conditioned not to self-promote,” says former Judge Carmen M. Garcia, now associate board member on the New Jersey State Parole Board and member of the Capital Health Board of Directors. “Case in point—at one of the most crucial moments of my professional career, when they told me that I was being considered for judicial office, I said, ‘Are you aware that I graduated from law school just 3 years ago?’” It was 1988, and Garcia would be the first Hispanic ever appointed to the bench in Mercer County, which gave her pause. Deep down she knew she could do the job, and when she confidently made her case, they knew too, and put through the appointment. Now she knows better than to hesitate. “Women must be willing to take risks,” says Garcia. “When opportunity knocks, we must be willing to open the door and step through, even if there is uncertainty on the other side.”
“I was OK being different from the status quo. That was the essence of my life. There was really nothing that could shake my dogged determination.” —Judge Carmen M. Garcia
Don’t be afraid to fail
Falling on your face is a big part of career growth, so allow yourself the space to try, fail, and try again. “Growing up, women often get the message that we can’t fail,” says Andrea Goulet, co-founder and CEO of Corgibytes, a software company specializing in modernizing legacy code. “That we have to be perfect. That we have to get straight A’s. Boys get rewarded for working hard and taking risks, and girls typically don’t.” Goulet recognized her own fear of failure mid-career. “For the longest time, I avoided anything that was too technological out of fear that I would fail.” Instead of getting her degree in computer science, she got it in marketing and business law, fields in which she felt more comfortable. It was only after she launched her company that she faced her fears and learned to code. “What I had to learn was that falling on my face and not getting things right the first time is what makes it fun,” she says.
“You don’t have to tolerate a toxic work environment. You have way more power. Know what your worth is and find a company that puts inclusion and diversity at the forefront.”
—Andrea Goulet, CEO, Corgibytes
Take on mentors (or be one)
Finding someone who can provide advice and offer support when you most need it is vital to growing your career. On Yuval Yarden’s fourth day into her first job out of college, she knew she had chosen the wrong career. But instead of quitting and starting over, she began reaching out to friends, colleagues, and business leaders she knew for career advice. “I ended up talking to 84 people over the course of 4 months,” says Yarden, who is now executive director at Philly Startup Leaders, a local network of entrepreneurs. “Old professors would introduce me to guest speakers, or I’d connect with someone at a networking event. Then we would just have coffee, dinner, breakfast, froyo, whatever they were willing to do, even if it was just a phone call.” She learned that people were always happy to spend 20 minutes helping her out.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re burdening someone when you reach out to them, but you’re really giving them a chance to share what they’ve learned.” At the end of the 4 months, she knew about entirely new opportunities and career paths that she would never have learned about otherwise.
“Developing grit in young girls is super important. If they fall, we need to tell them to get back up, brush their knees off, and keep running. That mentality pays off in the business world.” —Yuvel Yarden, executive director, Philly Startup Leaders
Don’t let them call you sweetie
Many women are leery of being called the B word, but Salvatore says there are other names, deemed more acceptable, that are equally offensive at times. “There are people of a certain age who genuinely don’t understand why it’s offensive when a woman is called sweetie or girl,” she says. “But they don’t have to understand why. We are telling you it’s offensive. You shouldn’t have to understand why to know that it’s upsetting to the person you are speaking to and change your behavior.” Getting called these names when you speak up during meetings, voicing your opinion, insisting on a seat at the table, or asking for promotions or raises can be unnerving, but it shouldn’t be your undoing, Vazquez says. Too often, we shy away, she says. “There’s a lot of data about the way women engage in the world. Time after time we take ourselves out of situations before we ever get into them. We lock ourselves in our minds and analyze all the pros and cons and make assessments before we’ve even tried something. If we think we won’t be successful or that we could hurt someone, we back away,” Vasquez says. “We tend to very carefully assess and manage risk. We do it on behalf of ourselves and others. When we do that, we’re not taking as many risks as we need to in many aspects of our lives. We need to try things, even if we think we’re not fully qualified for them.”
“We tend to very carefully assess and manage risk on behalf of ourselves and others. When we do that, we’re not taking as many risks as we need to in many aspects of our lives. We need to try things, even if we think we’re not fully qualified for them.” —Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO and co-founder of WEConnect International
How to Negotiate Salary
Practical advice from Elizabeth Vazquez on knowing—and getting—your worth
- Do your homework. When you’re going for a job, don’t just ask for a salary to cover your bills. Know what the job pays and the value of the position before you even go in for an interview. Just because you’re willing to take less doesn’t mean you should.
- Know your worth. Be clear and able to articulate your unique skillset and how you can help the organization.
- Be prepared to argue for what you deserve. This doesn’t only apply to jobs. Whether you’re applying for schools, or you want to run a board, or you’re going into a marriage, being willing to fight for yourself will not only help you get what you want, it also tells other people that you value yourself. And if we don’t, who will?
- Believe in your own abilities. If you feel powerful and you believe it, then you are powerful.