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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Give Better Career Advice to People Who Aren’t Exactly Like You

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Chad Loder is a six-foot tall, blue-eyed white guy. That’s how he described himself in a recent Twitter thread that got quite a bit of attention. This set of attributes, he explained, has shaped his career path. It means he’s seen and treated differently than women and people of color, he’s realized, and therefore that he should be careful about the way he gives advice.

“Before we white dudes give career advice to others, we have to consider that the tech industry (including #infosec) still has huge double standards when it comes to race and gender. Thus, what worked for me might actually be harmful advice for a woman or for a black man,” wrote Loder, who’s the founder and CEO of Habitu8. When white male colleagues go on about how degrees are unnecessary or certifications are meaningless, he said, they’re not recognizing that “a woman has to prove herself 2x or 3x just to be taken seriously in this industry—that certification might matter to her. It's what got her in the room.”

And one more thing. “We're told we should share our mistakes, our shortcomings, our doubts,” he tweeted. “If I do this, as a white man, I'm authentic. If I were a woman, I might be confirming my employer's fears about me.”

Hearing from women with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering, master’s degrees in cybersecurity, and oodles of certifications who still weren’t sure if they’d done enough made Loder—who dropped out of college two years into a computer science degree—start thinking about the advice he was doling out.

“It highlighted that my path was very different. A lot of the reasons I was able to be successful have to do with luck and privilege,” he tells The Muse. “I realized how invisible my privilege has been to me.”

Loder’s self-described rant may be aimed at white men—and there’s evidence to support why that’s an important audience—but it’s also useful for anyone giving advice to anyone else who hasn’t had the exact same experiences. Here are three things you can do today to make sure you’re giving better advice and being a better ally.

1. Listen First, and Let Yourself Be Uncomfortable

Loder has noticed a tendency to acknowledge that bias of course exists but to declare that it doesn’t happen here, in this company, field, or country. But “just because you’re not hearing about it and it’s not in your face constantly doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” he says. “Privilege can be invisible to the privileged.”

While he’s not a researcher of gender or race in the workplace, his thread rings true with those who are. And it goes beyond his industry.

“40 years of lab studies document that women and people of color have to prove themselves more than white men, particularly white men from elite backgrounds,” says Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “White men from elite backgrounds get the benefit of the doubt and are often judged on their potential whereas women and people of color are much more likely to be judged on performance.”

40 years of lab studies document that women and people of color have to prove themselves more than white men, particularly white men from elite backgrounds. (Joan C. Williams)

Some of her own research has found that a narrower range of behavior’s accepted from women and people of color than from white men. And so “advice to be authentic can be lethal.”

“All of this data doesn’t mean it’s always true,” she adds. “But it does mean it’s more likely.”

Williams was impressed with Loder’s self-awareness. “He clearly took the trouble to understand that what works for white men at work is often not what works for women or people of color.”

And sure, it can be pretty uncomfortable to open your eyes to that. But “it’s normal to be uncomfortable. You should treat that as a signal that there’s something here you should look at,” Loder says. The first step is to listen. “Talk to lots of women and people of color. And listen and listen and listen.”

And no matter who you’re giving advice to, listen to their situation first, ask questions, and listen some more.

2. Tailor Your Advice to Every Specific Individual

Muse Career Coach Jamie Lee explains that listening, empathy, and awareness are at the heart of giving any advice to anyone. “Because everyone…regardless of gender, social class, ethnicity, has a unique perspective,” she says. And “it behooves us to think about the diversity of experiences and backgrounds that people have,” she adds. “When I give advice I always try to give context: This is something that has worked for me. Let me tell you a story.”

In other words, be mindful of the factors that influenced your own experiences, and of the person you're speaking to. That way they can understand that context and evaluate whether or not your tips might work for them.

There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice. (Joanne Lipman)

Joanne Lipman, author of That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together, points to research that’s shown women have to be 2.5 times as productive to be seen as equally competent, that women are less likely to be promoted at every level, and that a woman in the same exact position as a man will command less respect.

“There are a lot of discrepancies. And within that, women of color, women who have disabilities, women who are physically different—women who are obese or handicapped—face a double or a triple bind,” Lipman says. So “you do have to be careful about any kind of advice as one size fits all,” Lipman agrees. “There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice.”

3. Do More to Disrupt Biases Every Day

An exchange that took place in response to Loder’s thread is instructive:

“It's sad that it is still like this in today's society. Everyone should just be treated equally. Full stop,” one commenter said.

Threads like this that help raise awareness and maybe instill change in even one person are the way that we actually make that progress. It won't magically happen.

To which another responded: “Yes, but we aren't. Threads like this that help raise awareness and maybe instill change in even one person are the way that we actually make that progress. It won't magically happen.”

Giving better advice will always require you to think about an individual's particular experiences and circumstances. But in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such disparities between what advice generally works for white men, women, and people of color. That’s just not the case yet. So while listening and being thoughtful about giving advice is important, it’s just as crucial for allies to take other steps to interrupt biases at work.

To start, you can read about how men can help close the gender gap, pick up Lipman’s book as well as the one Williams wrote with her daughter, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, or visit the Center for WorkLife Law’s Bias Interrupters website for toolkits to help interrupt bias in hiring, pay, performance evaluations, and assignments.

As the commenter said, full equality “won’t magically happen.” But anyone can start making small changes with a few simple actions in everyday situations. No magic required.

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