Women's "culture shock" in the workplace

Young women struggle with being assertive in the workplace.

By Page Rockwell
April 8, 2006 1:24AM (UTC)
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There's an interesting, if too anecdotal, piece in Women's eNews today about the "culture shock" young women in the U.S. face when they start their first jobs. The story focuses on a privileged class of women -- those who have recently graduated from college -- and quotes them talking about problems from sexual harassment to salary negotiation. The main complaint the piece deals with, though, is that "few find guideposts" for how they should behave in an office environment.

"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," says 25-year-old paralegal Brooke McDonald.


The story also makes much of the fact that young women are, for the most part, kicking ass academically, and currently outnumber men in most freshman classes, suggesting that women find the structure and clear performance benchmarks of academia easier to navigate than the more subjective professional world. "In school it is easy to know what to do. At work, however, it is more luck of the draw," McDonald says.

Part of me wants to suggest that these young workers suck it up. "Luck of the draw" is the way of the world, and if you're a recent American college grad, your draw has already been almost unfathomably lucky. And early 20-somethings have spent years learning to know what to do in school; it's reasonable to expect that it'll take them a while to learn the ropes professionally. Plus, this doesn't strike me as solely a women's issue. Young men may be less likely than young women to experience sexual harassment or the negative effects of a "good ol' boy" workplace culture, but I'm sure many men would appreciate clearer professional guideposts, too. (It's also worth noting that the piece only quotes a few women, so we can't know how pervasive these feelings are.)

On the other hand, it's callous to dismiss the concerns of workers trying to succeed in their jobs, despite minimal guidance and/or a sexist work environment, especially since job security has all but disappeared. And just because recent college grads already have many advantages doesn't mean these young women's wish for mentorship is silly; many workplaces would benefit from better on-the-job training.


The piece notes that the data on young women workers is still scarce, though one researcher says they are becoming more "demographically compelling" as a group. We do learn that even under-25 women, who face the smallest wage gap of any age group, still make seven cents on the dollar less than their male peers. More information on how young men and women integrate into the workplace would really round out the debate over the "war on boys," and whether girls' relative academic success has much bearing on whether they'll sink or swim professionally.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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