Career success is important to most professionals. How we define that success, however, can vary considerably from person to person.
Career advancement and career development are two terms often associated with success in work, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. Career development refers to the larger-scale trajectory of a professional’s career—how she grows in her roles, the skills she gains, the training she receives, and the different positions she holds. Career advancement, on the other hand, generally signifies someone taking the next step, which usually entails receiving a promotion or new work opportunity.
For many professionals, both types of progression are important. For some, it may be difficult to have one without the other. They may see career advancement as a crucial component of career development and career development as necessary for advancement. Others may not see promotions and new opportunities as essential to their career development.
For those who do hope to advance in their careers and develop in their roles along the way, read on to learn why career advancement matters, how you can set yourself up for success, and where to find opportunities and resources to help you get there.
Why career advancement matters to women
Career advancement matters to many people, of course. After all, most if not all professionals want to gain more responsibilities—not to mention income—and see their career progress. However, women face unique challenges in the workplace, particularly as they try to advance into leadership roles.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, women make up just 5.4% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. It may not be fair, but women face challenges men may not experience when it comes to career advancement. That’s why we need to make an extra effort and seek out opportunities to grow and advance in our careers.
How to map out your career progress
Mapping out what you have and want in your career allows you to both plan your progress and gauge your achievements. Here are some steps you should take to evaluate and inform your career progress:
Strive for your best, not perfection.
If you’re aiming to be perfect, failure is inevitable. Rather than forcing yourself to conform to a specific mold or ideal of how you or others think your life or career should be, consider what you really want—in life in addition to work. Take some time to reflect on what your strengths and weaknesses are. Doing so can also help steer a direction for the path your career should take. For instance, if you’re great with people but bad with numbers, perhaps you should focus more on customer service than sales. Or, if you need a skill you don’t have for your dream career, you can look for opportunities to hone it.
Having clear, measurable, and attainable goals will serve you well as you progress in your career. After all, without having goals, how will you know when you’ve achieved success?
Use SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based) to establish realistic, achievable outcomes for your career path. Include both short- and long-term goals, so you can measure your progress along the way. For instance, if your long-term goal is to manage a team at your company, a shorter-term goal might be to serve as the lead or initiate a specific project.
Create a plan and timeline.
Now that you have certain goals for your future, you need a plan and timeline for how and when you’ll achieve them. Consider the steps you need to take to reach your aspirations. How are raises and promotions given at your company? How often do people advance and why? Will you need to leave your company to gain experience or advance? These are the types of questions you should consider.
You should also plan when you should aim to achieve certain milestones or seek out opportunities. For example, if you know you’ll need to leave your company to advance in your industry, determine when you should start looking for new opportunities.
Seek out feedback from colleagues and managers.
Depending on where you work, you may have a routine performance review. This is an opportune time to take note of how you’re doing in your role and see if you’re on track to meet your goals. But you should also seek out additional opportunities to have others assess your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, you might ask coworkers for feedback on how you handled a project or task. If you manage a team or have at least one direct report, ask your employees for feedback as well.
This feedback is meant to inform you as to your progress in meeting your goals. Therefore, it’s important to remember to accept constructive criticism and not take it personally. If your colleague is well-versed in delivering feedback, she’ll probably offer some compliments about your performance in addition to ways you might improve. Even if she’s not diplomatic with her critique, you can still learn from it. For example, if she tells you that an event lacked organization, ask her for specifics as to what she would have done differently.
What happens to career advancement when you’re pregnant?
According to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, is illegal to fire someone for being pregnant. However, that doesn’t mean discrimination against pregnant women doesn’t exist. If you believe you’ve been the victim of pregnancy discrimination, you should look into filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
If you’re not facing outright discrimination because of your pregnancy, you may worry about your career stalling. While it’s true that you probably won’t get promoted while you’re on maternity leave (although it’s not impossible; I actually saw this happen to a former colleague at a previous job), you can take steps to keep your career on track.
Make a personal plan.
Consider what you’ll need to get done and when to do it. Take into account long-term projects that you’ll need to either finish or pass off to someone else, short-term projects that you can complete, and everything else you’ll need to do or delegate before you leave. Also, make a list of colleagues and clients you should contact.
Make a plan with your manager.
Of course, you’ll need to let your manager know and work out a plan with her, too. Figuring out the right time to break the news is tricky—you don’t want to tell people before you’re comfortable, but you also don’t want to generate office gossip. The best course of action to take is to read up on your company’s maternity leave policy so you go into the meeting informed and choose the time with which you’re most comfortable—sooner rather than later. For many women, this is probably around the end of the first trimester and beginning of the second, when chances of miscarriage are greatly reduced.
Stay in touch with colleagues and your manager while you’re on maternity leave.
You’re not going to email or call your manager, coworkers, or team every day, and you shouldn’t. However, if you want to hear an update on a project or about the status of a client, you can check in as needed with specific questions. Try not to micromanage while you’re away, though. It won’t be good for you or your team.
Delegate all your responsibilities to specific colleagues.
Touch base with every person you’re expecting to take the reins on projects and tasks, no matter how big or small. If you need to, do a rundown of everything that’s involved in completing it. Don’t forget to appoint an out-of-office contact, whom you’ll list in your automatic email reply, and go through anything that might come up with her.
Expect that your career may not progress rapidly during your pregnancy and for many months after you give birth.
You’re going to be pretty overwhelmed during your pregnancy and as a new mother. It’s a lot of work and responsibility! Work is probably the last thing on your mind. Once you head back to work, it’s natural to feel a little behind, but it’s also normal to want to take it easy as you get back up to speed. Try not to feel like you need to stay late all the time or work around the clock to catch up. Your colleagues and manager should understand that you have a lot on your plate.
Career advancement opportunities
There are many opportunities available to help you advance in your career. For the most part, you’ll need to be proactive in seeking them out. Here are just a few:
Performance reviews or conversations with your manager
A routine performance review is a good time to discuss your personal goals, not just in terms of promotions and raises, but also the bigger picture: your larger aspirations, career trajectory, desire for more responsibilities, and types of projects you’d like to work on.
You can also have these types of conversations outside of scheduled reviews. If you believe you’ve put in the time and effort and deserve a promotion, there’s probably no harm in asking. If you decide to go this route, come prepared with evidence demonstrating your accomplishments and why you deserve a promotion, such as past performance reviews, feedback from colleagues, and any documentation of success on the job.
Networking is an essential aspect of anyone’s career progress. Attending industry events allows you to meet others in your field and find potential contacts and opportunities. Even if one event doesn’t lead to you discovering a new position, the connections you make while networking can serve you well in the future, and you never know who might come through for you.
Professional development workshops and seminars
As with networking events, you can meet important connections at professional development events. But that’s not the only advantage to attending workshop, courses, and seminars. You’ll also learn valuable skills and information to help you do your current job well and advance to the next level in your career.
A mentor can guide and coach you throughout your career. While you shouldn’t look to her to hire you, although many current or former bosses do make for good mentors, you can bounce ideas off her and receive advice, as well as learn skills and opportunities to develop your career further.
Industry organizations and committees
Many industries and companies have different types of committees, groups, and organizations of which you can serve on the board or be a member. Joining one will help you get your name out there as well as keep you apprised of trends in your field. You may even find out about new opportunities as a member of this type of group.
Career advancement grants
A career advancement grant from the government or a philanthropic foundation or organization can provide you with the funding you may need to help you build your career and achieve your goals. Often, if you receive an award, you won’t need to pay it back.
First, a word of caution: While grants can give you a great opportunity to further your education, gain a new certification, or advance your career by other means, many scams preying upon people who have these goals exist. If you are contacted with a grant offer, pay attention to red flags, including but not limited to:
- An offer you did not seek out
- A vague or generic greeting or subject line (e.g. “Hi there,” “Hey!” or “Your Application” when you didn’t apply)
- Typos, grammatical errors, or misspellings
- A fake government agency name (you can Google the name to make sure)
- Fees associated with the application (usually, it will be free to apply for a grant)
- Requests for financial information, your bank account information, social security number, or credit card number
- A too-good-to-be-true offer, such as promising thousands of dollars for personal use or a guarantee that your application will be accepted
That said, there are many real grants that provide funding to professionals to advance in their careers. Here are some to check out:
AAUW provides funding to women who have a bachelor’s degree and want to advance in their current careers, change careers, or re-enter the workforce. Recipients may use the grants to complete coursework beyond the bachelor’s level, such as pursuing a master’s or second bachelor’s degree, certification program, or specialized technical or professional training.
The Ms. Foundation provides grants specifically for people and organizations who work as advocates for women and girls in many different capacities, such as economic justice and protecting women’s access to health and reproductive care. In addition to supporting organizations, the Ms. Foundation offers leadership training opportunities to individual women.
Through the ASIST (Adult Students in Scholastic Transition), EWI offers funding to adult women facing economic, social, or physical challenges who want to improve their careers and themselves through education. Recipients may use the award to retrain in a new field or attend trade school.
P.E.O. offers six grants and scholarships to support women starting their higher education, returning to school, or pursuing an advanced degree. The P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education (PCE) provides need-based grants to women looking to complete a degree or certification or gain skills necessary for their employment.
There are also many grants geared toward women of particular demographics, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and other groups of people, or those who are members of a specific field or discipline, such as the arts and STEM fields. Search online for professional grants specifying your field or demographic to locate these opportunities.
Check out 50 Great Career Resources for women for more career tips, advice, and inspiration on how to progress in your career.