Your Essential Guide to Career Advancement

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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.

Advantages of advancing your career

As mentioned above, advancing your career means exciting changes in the professional world. You may gain more responsibilities as you work your way through a career path, meaning more opportunities to find personal accomplishment, and maybe even meaning, in your everyday work. Advancing your career — and professional reputation — may also mean gaining more freedoms over how you dedicate your time and what projects you pursue. This may allow you to spend more time on the tasks you enjoy most in your career, along with pursuing passion projects. You may be able to manage others, if that is one of your professional goals, or strike out on your own on projects as a well-regarded member of your organization. 
And on top of these less concrete benefits of advancing in the workplace, moving up in your career can also mean raising your income. Generally, as our responsibilities become more advanced at work or as the gravity of our work increases, our pay also increases. To ensure you are being paid fairly along the way, consult crowd-sourced salary banks like the one on Fairygodboss and ask for a raise if your salary doesn't match up with other people in your role. 
As you become an expert in your career, opportunities to consult and counsel others, as well as offer your other services on the side, may also come easier. This is the perfect way to pursue passions you care about — paid and for charity — as well as diversify your experience and perhaps your cash flow.  You may also be able to achieve other personal goals, such as speaking at conferences, mentoring other members of your field or writing a book about your experiences and expertise. Who knows? A TV show may even be in your near future. 

Challenges of advancing your career

There can be many challenges to advancing your career — especially for women. 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. There are socially-engrained unconscious biases that many women must overcome while interviewing for roles, asking for promotions or gaining sponsors — people who will fight for them when they are up for a promotion or new role. For example, women are sponsored and promoted at a lesser rate than men because ambition in women is often coded as "bossiness" or lack of team attitude. Additionally, women in male-dominated industries may face unconscious biases that cause interviewers and potential sponsors to see them as less qualified than men in their field. For example, women engineers often report being deemed less intelligent or technically-minded than men. Meanwhile, it is still widely believed that men make better soldiers, despite evidence they do not. 
Women of color, transgender women and disabled women face even more compounded biases than their white, cis and able-bodied counterparts, resulting in a severe hiring, pay and promotion gap. According to a study published by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in 2018, Black women make only about 65% of what white men make, while Hispanic women make only 61%. In 2016, a report by the American Association of University Women found that disabled women make only 68 cents to every dollar a white man makes. Meanwhile, transgender people are 50% more likely to be unemployed in the United States compared to the general population, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. 
While women, and especially some populations of women, face special challenges in advancing their careers, anyone can struggle to advance for several reasons. First, a proper training in interviewing or asking for a promotion can cause a lack of success in receiving new opportunities. At the same time, while some people know how to interview or ask for a promotion, they are not mentally or emotionally prepared to do so. They may suffer from a lack of confidence or imposter syndrome — a feeling that they do not deserve their professional success and that they will be exposed as a fraud. Additionally, some people hold themselves back because they don't know what progress looks like. A lack of knowing your goals or how to pursue them can lead to a career effectively stalling out. The lack of a supportive community, including a strong network that is built on professional connections, can also cause issues when pursuing new professional goals. We'll tackle how to overcome these challenges throughout this article, along with how to find a network to help you overcome them. 

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.
  • Establish goals.

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.
  • Mentoring relationships

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.

How to advance your career at work

There are many ways to advance your career at your current job. First, always volunteer for projects or assignments that will expand your skills — both soft and technical. Demonstrate leadership wherever possible, and keep track of your team's accomplishments (preferably in numbers and percentages) for future resumes and performance reviews. Spend time getting to know the people that you work with and building rapport with your team — especially your manager. Try to leave work everyday knowing that someone in your office would write you a recommendation. 
After you've performed this way, going above and beyond in your role, advance your career by asking for a promotion when the time is right. For more information on how to land a promotion, check out the wealth of resources on Fairygodboss. If you aren't approved for a promotion, no worries! That doesn't mean your chances at career advancement are ruined. Ask how you can improve your performance in the future, and keep working away. Or, look for another role.

Being satisfied in your current role

Wanting more out of your career doesn't mean you need to be miserable in your current role. As you pursue your future aspirations, try to be mindful of how your current position is feeding into your bigger plan. Is it giving you experience with technical skills you'll need later? Is it providing you a good recommendation you'll need later from a manager or friend? Is it teaching you a soft skill, like teamwork? Focusing on the inherent value of your role will help each day retain its meaning, and hopefully help you find purpose in the day-to-day life of where you are now. If the minutia of your current role seems overwhelming even as you practice mindfulness, focus on giving yourself plenty of time after work to pursue your passions and work towards that bigger goal. And as always, practice self-care. This will keep you from burning out and allow you to push forward along your desired career path. 

Sponsorships for career advancement

Yes, you can get sponsored to grow your career. 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:

  1. American Association of University Women (AAUW) Career Development Grants

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.

  2. The Ms. Foundation

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.

  3. Executive Women International

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.

  4. Philanthropic Educational Organization

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.

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