Young Women Face Culture Shock in First Jobs

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Amy Kopelan

(WOMENSENEWS)–Brooke MacDonald, 25, who started her first job as a paralegal at a large New York law firm, said she was baffled by the dynamics of the workplace.

“I didn’t know the extent to which I could assert myself,” she said. “It also was unclear when to push for more to do and when to sit back and wait to be asked to do something, especially if you don’t have a great manager or a mentor who is really willing to teach you what is important in the job. In school it is easy to know what to do. At work, however, it is more luck of the draw.”

MacDonald, like many other young women, found it hard to handle her office’s subculture.

“It wasn’t clear how you were supposed to interact with bosses and when you are allowed to speak up for yourself. Basically, I didn’t know what it takes to succeed besides being really aggressive, an area I wasn’t particularly adept at,” MacDonald said.

Women now outnumber men in many incoming freshman classes, according to recent statistics. Three-fifths of National Honor Society members are female; women also are reaching parity, if not exceeding men, in a multitude of graduate programs. As of 2000, over 80 percent of women aged 25 to 34 were working, a 17 percent increase from 1975.

And, despite recent media accounts about so-called Gen Y women–those in their late teens and early 20s–wanting to opt out of careers and rear children instead, a March 27 Lifetime Women’s Pulse Poll of 801 women indicates a different trend. Conducted for Lifetime Networks by pollsters Kellyanne Conway and Celinda Lake, it found that of three generations of women included, this youngest group of women were the least likely to say they’d leave their careers behind if they didn’t need a paycheck.

What Happens at the Office?

But what happens when these young women get to the office?

The subject of women at work has been exhaustively explored, but the majority of what is written focuses on mid-career and older women. For young women starting out–who aren’t yet hitting a glass ceiling, having kids and trying to balance it all–few find guideposts or even data about themselves.

A recent search on the Web site of New York-based Catalyst, a leading research and advocacy group on women’s career advancement, turned up no exact matches for “young women.”

“Organizations do research about things that companies will pay money to discover and that make good headlines,” says Amy Dorn Kopelan, president of COACH ME Inc., a nonprofit group based in New York City that helps women with the subtle skills and unwritten rules of work. “Issues surrounding younger or newer workers, male or female, have not been as relevant, or demographically compelling, as they are becoming today.”

A stronger area of research, however, is the importance of career mentoring for women of all ages. In 2002, a survey by Simmons School of Management–the Boston-based business school–found women with informal mentors reported a greater number of promotions and higher promotion rates than those without mentors.

Undercurrents Hinder Adjustment

Dr. Anna Fels, a New York-based psychiatrist and author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives,” published in 2004, said that while women’s access to education at all levels has improved, their second-class citizenship often kicks in when they hit work.

Alfia Muzio, 23, who graduated from Columbia University in New York last spring, said that entering the work force can be “exciting and full of promise.”

But she also said it can be lonely and intimidating. “The men at my office are totally inappropriate,” she said. “They say things of a sexual nature, commenting on appearance in an unwelcome way using ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie’ instead of names. It gets very uncomfortable. One guy actually just got fired for sexual harassment. That kind of stuff would have never happened in college.”

Katrina Mosher

According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions statistics, women filed 85 percent of all sexual harassment charges in 2004.

Katrina Mosher, 24, who works for a large company outside of Los Angeles, said that navigating the gender dynamics at the office is more time consuming than she ever imagined. “I could get my work done in half the time it takes me, if I didn’t have to deal with the good old boys’ club that creates the upper tiers of my company.”

Mosher said she was also surprised at how differently men and women were received in the workplace. “Men are responded to in a better way during meeting and presentations. If a woman walks in and shows any sign of weakness, she is put under even more pressure.”

First Salary Affects Lifelong Earnings

Further complicating the obstacles young women face when they are new on the job is pay equity. Women in general still lag far behind male colleagues, and the overall wage gap means that women earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man. But according to 2005 statistics from the U.S. Labor Department, the gap narrowed to 93 percent for workers under 25 years old, indicating that the gap only widens as women move through their careers and face increasing obstacles to pay equity as they become more senior.

Like many young women, MacDonald said that coming into the work force she didn’t know anything about retirement plans or benefits.

“These are things you really should know about when you are planning your life and entering a job,” she said.

While many young men are also unaware of financial planning, young women are struggling more financially than their male counterparts. More than half the single young women in the United States are living paycheck to paycheck, compared to only 42 percent of single men, a 2002 study by the Washington-based Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, found.

Carol Frohlinger, an attorney and co-founder of Negotiating Women, a New York-based company that trains women on how to negotiate for salaries and promotions, says that young women have difficulty asserting themselves in such negotiations and will pay a high price for that. “If you are a female college graduate and you don’t negotiate on your first salary, the research says that you will lose out on $1.2 million over the course of your career.”

Frohlinger says that businesses should not leave the onus entirely on young women. “This is a big business issue. Companies should be looking at pay inequity and the fact that their talent pool is shrinking and 50 percent of the top talent is women.”

Hannah Seligson is a freelance writer based in New York. Her book, “New Girl on the Job,” will be published by Citadel Press in 2007.

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