High five: Expert offers ways women can improve their spot in workplace

Be curious, ask questions, find your passion. 

Sound advice for women wanting to move up in the workforce.

Sangeeta Rao, assistant dean of mentoring programs at Rutgers Business School, tells it to her students all the time. To those women starting out on their first jobs today, Rao said the traditional advice still holds true. 

“Early in your career, you want to really prove your worth,” she said.

“You need to build capital based on proving your work and the quality of your output. You haven’t built your reputation yet, so you can’t rest on it. Therefore, doing your best work and trying to go above and beyond is still really important at that early stage.”

Rao, who also is the co-founder of the Rutgers Center for Women in Business, said business plays a crucial role in creating social impact. Businesses have the power and responsibility to make things better. 

“It is not just the work of government,” she said. “It’s private organizations, corporations, and people and businesses. We all must do our share.”

Rao said analyzing the state of women in business today — and what may come in the future — is complicated. 

“While there have been many improvements, there are so many layers to it,” she said. “Most of the representation might be within certain roles; you might find far more chief marketing officers than you do chief financial officers or CEOs. There is also an additional layer that for women of color — those stats are even lower.”

The situation is fragile, she said. And needs an all-in approach to improve.

“We have to look at industry,” she said. “We have to look at intersectionality and how women of color shouldn’t be left behind in all of this, while celebrating the gains that women as a whole are making.”

With that, Rao offered five pieces of advice for women in the workforce:

Find a mentor

Rao said her work in mentoring and student development at Rutgers focuses on connections and the value that those interactions and mentorships play. Being genuinely curious about other people is important to find one’s own path and fulfillment, as well as one’s own ultimate success, she said. 

“You need to push yourself to speak with other people, create connections and find mentors, because coming at a career with a genuine curiosity to learn about other people will help anyone who is starting out learn about the bigger picture and the company,” she said. “Being able to see how one department relates to another and seeing its intersections is where the opportunities are.”

Ask questions, lots of them

Understanding doesn’t come naturally. Rao said it comes from being well-informed — and urges everyone to ask questions and be curious of the world around them. 

“I’m a big believer in being curious about the world, because you’re only going to be successful at something if you enjoy doing it,” she said. “So, you must figure out what it is you enjoy.”

What if someone doesn’t know the right questions to ask? What opens them up to know? What if they aren’t certain this is the industry or the place they should be? 

It all comes down to being authentic, Rao said. She suggested figuring out one’s interests within the workforce and what to assign value to. She also said to find people that sort of touch on that to connect to.  

Stretch your skills, test yourself

Rao said women need to seek out stretch assignments. Find groups that might be of interest. Get involved in the community or in leadership or diversity & inclusion activities, she said.

“Ask to be on a different team or a different assignment that gives you exposure,” she said. “Not only to the broader organization, but one that sort of helps you integrate some of your other interests into your everyday work. Through the relationships you build there, and through the conversations you’re having, you’re likely to discover what drives you and what you’re good at.”

Be better informed

That is especially true if you are interested in leadership roles, she said. Being more informed about the world comes from being able to think critically, and that is what the future really needs, because, she said, organizations will want individuals who are well-rounded.

“A lot of what happens within business is problem-solving, and the challenge is figuring out what it is you want to change,” she said. “So, be curious about the world, be informed. Find out what the challenges are in school, or in the community, or in the world in general. Read and talk to people and join student clubs where people are discussing issues is vital. 

“Organizations do not want people with only hard skills. They need them to be critical thinkers and understand how to apply those skills to make things better.”

Get back out there

It’s the same advice she would give to a middle-schooler or high-schooler preparing for the future. Try everything, enjoy everything and interact more. She advises women to speak to as many people as possible, because it will become easier to align interests with values and skill development. 

This idea has never been more important, because we’ve all been cooped up by the pandemic, which definitely has taken a toll on human interactions, Rao said.

“It’s in those interactions that you learn more about yourself,” she said. “That is what I would tell young kids to do. Have more interactions and be curious about the world, because that is where you are going to figure out how you can think about these things.”

Conversation Starters

Reach Rutgers Center for Women in Business at: women.business.rutgers.edu.

Reach Rutgers Business School at: business.rutgers.edu or call 973-353-1234.