Preparing Women Graduates to Navigate the Career 'Labyrinth'

We must recognize the unique circumstances that will impact female students rather than male students after graduation.
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Graduation season is a time of great opportunity and optimism, when years of study, preparation and experience are brought together for the first of many career milestones. Although hiring trends were of concern for some previous graduating classes, recent numbers show that unemployment fell by nearly five percent in 2015 for college grads and average medium income rose $3,000. According to the annual National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, business majors earned the fourth-highest starting salaries in 2015 and are among the top college majors sought by corporate recruiters for job opportunities. These are very positive signs for the Class of 2016.

However, as we strive to provide all students with strong academic preparation, career exposure and diverse outside the classroom experiences, we must recognize the unique circumstances that will impact female students rather than male students after graduation. The glass ceiling has been used to describe the barriers for women in the workplace, and psychologists Alice Eagly and Linda Carli argue that that metaphor is no longer relevant. They think that women must navigate a maze of obstacles and obstructions in the form of such things as persistent gender discrimination, work-family balance and the double bind that make their career paths both distinct and challenging. A labyrinth represents a journey that must be navigated, whereas a glass ceiling marks a stopping point.

As educators, what we can we do to better prepare our female soon-to-be college graduates to successfully navigate this career labyrinth?

I recently served as faculty advisor to a research project on this topic with Alicia Craig, a student within the Pitt Business Honors Program. Alicia reasoned that in order to help young women successfully navigate the labyrinth, they must be provided with role models of success. For her project, she conducted extensive interviews with women across all types of occupations, sectors and industries who were effectively navigating Eagly and Carli's notion of the labyrinth.

Alicia's findings, soon to be published in a digital magazine, provide interesting qualitative insights on strategies used by these women to navigate the labyrinth. A number of strategies were identified in Alicia's data, but three significant themes emerged among the women she interviewed. These themes are best described as a personal "G.P.S. System," which stands for "Goals, Peers and Style."

First, women in business had to be clear about their "Goals," professional, personal and otherwise. Clarity of purpose was important in helping them make critical choices throughout all career stages. Many of the women interviewed talked about how this strategy helped them to better define success even when those definitions did not conform to the traditional view of career outcomes. Navigating the labyrinth meant that, sometimes, these women had to develop new ideas of what successful careers, work, family and life meant to them. These goals effectively served as breadcrumbs as they navigated around obstacles and detours and obstructions.

Second, the women interviewed had to build strong relationships among "Peers." These people formed their network and provided them with social capital. Research suggests that social capital is almost as critical to a leader's advancement as are their individual skills and performance. The women interviewed talked about the help, partnerships and mentoring that was provided through their peer networks. Many of these relationships were formed during their college years.

The third component of the personal G.P.S. system was "Style," or their personal approach one takes in navigating her career pathway. The interviewees were keenly aware of the double-bind they faced for women and looked for ways to project authority without having to adopt stereotypically male behavior or to be seen as an autocratic type of leader. Many of the women shared stories of how their reliance on collaborative leadership styles proved to be a critical tool, especially for their long-term success.

Navigating the career labyrinth was possible for these women because they developed clarity of personal career goals, formed strong peer relationships within their networks and adopted a collaborative style that helped move them through dynamic and sometime challenge pathways. Now having progressed to senior leadership roles, many of these women were open to sharing their experiences and offering advice to younger women just now starting their career journey. As we prepare to congratulate the Class of 2016, let's learn from these lessons and utilize the wealth of knowledge produced by this research to help college women navigate their career labyrinth.

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