Advice I would give my younger self on tackling sexism and other career challenges

As a general rule, I avoid wading into political or controversial topics on this blog. There is more than enough partisan discourse out there for people to consume! But I am breaking with my own rule this week to talk about the issue of sexism.

Why now?

In the past week, we have all become too familiar with the countless allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. These stories follow a similar series of exposes on Silicon Valley and the technology industry as a whole.

While stories range from accounts of women being sidelined in their careers to allegations of coercion and outright assault, the overall narrative is depressingly familiar. It seems women still face an uphill battle when it comes to equality and career progression in most if not all industries.

While I firmly believe the exposure given to these stories is much needed and will hopefully prove a tipping point that will ultimately change the kind of behavior we tolerate in any industry, I am also all too aware as a PR person of the power of media saturation and the perceptions it can create.

More than once in the past week I have heard people ask what incentives there are for young female graduates to embrace the technology industry, for example, when it appears stacked against them? I have seen reports of derailed careers, ambition sapped and concerns that we are losing the battle to retain female talent just when we need it most.

And that is the point I want to address in this blog: Sexism is real, and we have a long way to go to achieve equality, but women –  and particularly young women – should not let reports of sexism derail their ambitions.

I am in the process of preparing for a podcast on advice I would give my younger self, and in doing so I have considered the key moments that defined my career.

Over the course of my professional life, I have worked with incredible men and women who have nurtured my career growth and been supportive throughout. I have experienced highs and lows as everyone does and, yes, on occasion I have felt the sting of sexism, racism and ageism.

But I didn’t allow those moments to define my career. That is the message I most want to impart to young women.

The technology industry has its challenges, no doubt. So too does the entertainment industry, the legal industry – probably every industry. But there are also growing numbers of women in senior positions, and many more female entrepreneurs. The glass ceiling is not yet broken, but it is riddled with cracks, and now is not the time to retreat.

In my own industry, the number of women setting up PR firms or consultancy practices grows daily. While the reasons are multifold, for many women tired of seeking a better work-life balance, the best approach is to create that balance for themselves. These women are changing the face of the PR industry, driving the growth of “blended teams” and new models of work.

So, what advice would I give my younger self to avoid some of the potential career perils that, sadly, still exist?

  • When applying for jobs, focus more on the environment you will be working in than who offers the highest salary or has the most high-profile name. Glassdoor, for example, offers prospective employees anonymous insight on companies. While it is good to be cautious about anonymous feedback, it can also be beneficial in identifying repeated patterns of behavior.

  • Invest time in building a network from the outset of your career. Seek out supportive people you can partner with and learn from.

  • Be clear that you are not obliged to tolerate sexism, racism or any other kinds of hostility because it is the “office norm.” Don’t be afraid to push back, set boundaries and enlist the support of HR if necessary.

  • Don’t be afraid to walk away from an unhappy career experience. While it is unlikely that every day at the office will be a bed of roses, sometimes we find ourselves in the wrong place. It may be an unfulfilling role, poor chemistry with associates or something as basic as a miserable commute. If the status quo isn’t working for you, change the status quo.

I am ultimately an optimist, and over the course of my career to date I have seen real change happening in terms of the number of women I meet achieving their version of career success. It is ultimately a good thing that these stories of harassment are finally coming to light, allowing frank conversations about sexism and inequality to take place. But it is also important for women to know that there is hope on the horizon. The technology industry – every industry – needs incredible female talent to pave the way for the future. I want the next generation of female graduates to know that.

Valerie Chanindustry