Women: How to Strategize the First 10 Years of Your Career
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- Research shows women must often choose between having a family or a career.
- However, women can get closer to having "it all" with the right strategies.
- Successful women prioritize, build networks, and share the workload at home.
- Women in leadership roles give their advice on career strategies.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal of having "it all" has seemed even more out of reach for working women.
Research indicates a longstanding trend of women feeling forced to choose between a family or a career. According to CNBC, in 2018, the top priorities of single women did not involve family planning but, rather, establishing a career and attaining financial security.
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On the other hand, in 2022, the Society for Human Resource Management cited family demands and lack of work-life balance as major factors in why women have not returned to work after historic job losses during the pandemic.
But whether you want to incorporate family planning into your career path or pursue a personal life and an advanced degree, there are career strategies you can harness to get you there.
Set Priorities, Not Goals
Successful women are redefining the terms of "success" when it comes to their professional and personal lives. In a four-decade-long study of participants who were identified as gifted in childhood, Vanderbilt University researchers found that women value community involvement, family, and developing close relationships as indicators of a successful life.
Rather than setting narrow career goals, try to holistically evaluate what you want out of life. Instead of goals to attain, set priorities you want to maintain. Is striking a work-life balance a top priority? Does remote work provide you with the space to develop your dream side-hustle? Understanding your priorities in life can keep you focused on the big picture.
Don't Do It Alone
Build a network of like-minded people you can rely on for support. Natalie Ruiz, CEO of AnswerConnect and volunteer for nonprofits like PDX Women in Tech and the Oregon Foodbank, wishes she had built such a network earlier in her journey.
— Natalie Ruiz
"Know that [you] don't have to go it alone," Ruiz said. "Looking back, I could have been surrounded by people who could have helped me navigate some of the challenging situations I encountered early in my career if I would have been intentional about building my network, seeking mentors, and asking for help."
Ruiz encourages women to let the helpers help.
"What most of us don't realize … is that we're surrounded by people who want to see us win, who are willing to help and be advocates for us."
Value Experience Over Achievements
Focusing on achievements — obtaining an advanced degree, getting a promotion, getting a job — can blind us to the value of our experience. Dr. Krista Kurlinkus, who founded her own small business focused on grant writing, stresses the importance of learning to value your unique skill set.
While working on her Ph.D. at The Ohio State University, she accepted a development director position at a nonprofit. Shortly after, she realized she loved grant writing, but didn't like the fundraising duties. Unfortunately, the job became a toxic environment for Kurlinkus, and she quit cold turkey. She also registered for her LLC on the same day.
"I combined my grant writing experience and teaching background to create my signature course, Grant Writing Made Easy," she said. "Now our business is primarily an online education business, and I get to use my doctorate in English and years of experience teaching university writing in a totally unconventional way."
Commit to Lifelong Learning
A 2012 journal article in Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences indicates that the greatest benefits of lifelong learning include the ability to keep up with the fast-changing world, the chance for higher pay, and an increased sense of self-fulfillment.
Habits of a lifelong learner can include:
Listening to podcasts
Investing in continued education
Ruiz recommends carving out 30 minutes a day. "Over time, the 30 minutes you've logged each day will compound and help you level up," she said. "By diversifying what you learn, you can also introduce voices, narratives, and perspectives into your world that you might not otherwise encounter."
Lean In and Lose Your Balance
Ruiz advises women to accept that the balancing act is impossible.
"This concept that we can [have] 'balance' is not real," Ruiz said. "The idea that we can do everything is not only false, but it's a dangerous fairy tale to keep telling ourselves because it leads to feeling like we're somehow coming up short."
By leaning into the priorities you've defined and letting go of what's not a priority, you might lose balance. But you'll spend your time doing what's important to you.
"I will admit, last night's dinner dishes are probably still in the sink because I will choose to cuddle with my daughter before she goes to bed over scrubbing dishes every single time," Ruiz said.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider what your priorities are:
Is this in alignment with my values?
Will it help me grow?
Is this the best use of my time?
Does this help me create a better life for myself?
What's the risk if I don't do this?
What's the impact if I choose to do this?
Embrace the 80/20 Rule
Italian philosopher and economist Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto developed the 80/20 rule, also known as Pareto's Principle. The rule states that 80% of outcomes result from 20% of the work put in. For women in business, this can look like investing in the priorities that are getting you results.
In the first years of running her small business, Dr. Kurlinkus learned to embrace the 80/20 rule and unlearn the practice of overworking.
"The rule that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your work has definitely held true in my business," she said. "And the things you let go of? Most people won't even notice you're no longer doing them."
Share the Workload at Home
Work-life balance may not always be possible. But it is possible to establish couple equity when it comes to managing the daily tasks that keep a house running.
— Krista Kurlinkus
The pandemic blurred the lines between home and work, normalizing remote and hybrid work options. As a result, researchers found that women's workloads at home increased even as they maintained full-time jobs from home.
Distributing the home workload between you and your partner is key if women are to succeed in their careers. As Dr. Kurlinkus puts it, "The onus for women being able to build careers while also having a family and a fulfilling life outside of work should not be on us."
Can women have it all?
Whether you want to run a business and have a family, or grow your career and earn an advanced degree, there are strategies to help get you there. While Ruiz acknowledges that she didn't have a set career plan, her journey has always aligned with her priorities.
"My 'career plan' was to find a place where I could grow, work really hard, and keep growing," she says. "So far, it's going well."
With Advice From
Krista Kurlinkus is the founder, CEO, and principal grant writer of Krista Kurlinkus, LLC. While completing her Ph.D. in English Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies from The Ohio State University, she became a development director at a nonprofit with an annual budget over $1 million. Upon graduating, Dr. Kurlinkus founded her consultancy to use her grant writing skills and doctoral research on the rhetorics of nonprofit advocacy to benefit the causes she cared about.
Natalie Ruiz is the CEO of AnswerConnect. While she is a CEO now, she started her career with the company as a temporary employee — and she almost quit during her first week because she wasn't sure the job or the company was the right fit. Ruiz often says that her path to success has been unconventional, and that's one of the aspects that fuels her to continue to challenge assumptions about what work, success, and the concept of what balance in life looks like.
She is an award-winning executive who has been recognized with awards for Female Executive of the Year and for Women Helping Women by the Stevie Award Association and a Woman of Influence by the Portland Business Journal.