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Just because I’m a young woman does that mean I’m incompetent?

It’s your first day. You are shown to your desk and you start chatting with your new colleague next to you. They seem nice. As you’re shown how to use your new email system (who even uses lotus notes anymore?), your colleague talks about the discount you can get on the local transport network if you’re under a certain age. So by the way, how old are you?

You start to stress. Is my new boss listening? Did the head of the department just walk past? Then you’re confronted with the dilemma. Do you lie about your age, or do you tell the truth and risk not being respected because you’re the ‘youngie’ in the department who couldn’t possibly be as competent as Fran; an older colleague who spent 10 years capacity-building staff in Uganda and by the way did you know she won that $20 Million contract/client/grant/donor…

Of course, let’s not be unrealistic about this. Experience counts. In some workplaces, a good amount of relevant experience is more important than a PhD from Oxford. But if you’re not like Fran and you’re just coming into the game – how do you show that you are also competent at what you do?

Some studies show that women have to work harder than men to progress in their chosen fields (see more here and here). And I would add, young women need to work even harder to gain respect, because they don’t have 20-years of experience on their CV to ‘prove’ themselves to the powers that be. See, often for young women – respect and competency are not granted assumptions, they need to be proven and earnt. Why? Because the fact is, only a few generations ago, a large amount of young women did not have a strong presence in a lot of workplaces – and so unfortunately, we don’t have the benefit of history earning that respect for us either. So in some ways (just as some seriously impressive women have done throughout time) we have to write this history for ourselves.

So what can we do? Do we just accept that this is how it is for young women in a lot of workplaces? Nup. But you can change it – by changing the way you work. Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  1. You want respect? Earn it. Don’t listen to that older CEO that gives you that look of ‘poor you’ when they discuss politics or that colleague that doesn’t give you complex projects on purpose. Whatever pieces of work you’re given (yes, even if they are boring, super difficult, or appear ‘beneath you’), smash them. Just because you don’t have 20 years experience, it doesn’t mean that you can’t show people what you’re made of! Also, respect earns respect. So, try to respect your colleagues and your seniors genuinely, and respect their position in the organisation. Chances are, they’ll notice!
  1. Be confident in what you know. A lot of younger people these days are very educated, have travelled a lot, may have volunteered or interned extensively and actually have a fair bit of life experience. So you know some stuff. Be confident in that, remember what you have learnt and build on that.
  1. Always be eager to learn. This is super important. Sometimes youngies can fall into the unicorn complex – thinking that their first employers owe them something because they are so great and educated (But my mum told me I’m extra special?) Don’t be this woman. Be the woman that takes on challenging projects, tells their boss when they need more work, that schedules coffee meetings with the senior colleague that can teach them so much. Remember the quote “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”.
  1. Balance confidence, competence and humility. This is tough, particularly for young women. Confidence is important, yet if you go too far, this can turn people off. Humility is a virtue, yet if you never volunteer for new things and demonstrate your strengths, people might think they can roll over you. And competence – be good at what you’re good at, but always be trying to improve your competence through personal and professional development. Seek these opportunities out, because they may not fall in your lap.

Don’t forget also that we need to look out for other women in our workplaces, build relationships with eachother, and respect women of all ages. So for women reading this that have been in the game for a while – look out for those youngies at your work – nurture them; and for you younger ladies, respect those women that can teach you so much.

So you ready to go and kick some ass? Then go! Show that world all that you’ve got! Yeah world, we are women, hear us roar.

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