Lessons from a Life at Work

The career advice we’d most like to give our daughters so they don’t make the same mistakes we did.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

"What I would like to teach Maggie is that she’ll be pulled in many directions as she grows," Gibson says. "A decision that’s right one day might be wrong the next. I hope I can help her develop integrity so that when she looks into her soul and asks, ‘Is this where I want to be?’ she’ll have the strength to answer honestly and the guts to move on. I want her to take her dreams seriously — and, above all, have fun."

Lessons #4 – #7

#4: Don’t Work for a Jerk

Our daughters’ generation may think sexual harassment is a thing of the past (it’s illegal now, right?), but one anonymous reader knows it isn’t.

She wrote to me that in the late 1990s, as her responsibilities doubled, she suggested to her boss that she be elevated to supervise some planned new hires. He suggested they discuss it over lunch, where "he told me to dump my husband and get a sugar daddy like himself so I wouldn’t have to be concerned with ambition," she wrote. "Then, when we got back to the office, he told a colleague we’d been at a hotel. Behind closed doors, I told him he was out of line. He agreed and said we should forget this ever happened. I did — or tried to. He didn’t."

After receiving a mixed performance review, she realized that her future at the company was iffy at best. But she stayed on for what she describes as a year of pure hell. "I was working too many hours to look for another job, and I was constantly on the defensive," she wrote. Finally she was given another bad review and asked to sign it or resign. She chose the latter. Her experience points up the need to be careful in the process of filing a complaint and to be prepared with an escape hatch.

Now a successful writer, she has this advice for her daughter: "Sexual bullying and discrimination are facts of life. To succeed in business, you have to work in a supportive environment. If you’re afraid of being jobless, I promise you can move back home."

#5: Stand Up for Yourself

When Laura Levine graduated from Harvard Law School in 1989, she launched a corporate career at a time when women were often undervalued. Her primary message to her 9-year-old daughter, Abby: Toot your own horn. "Don’t sit back and expect to be recognized just because you do good work," says Levine, now 41 and living in Larchmont, New York. "Women often feel that they will come across as too aggressive if they highlight their contributions. Make sure you get credit for your work, because the men surely will."

Recently divorced after nearly 10 years of marriage, Levine would also counsel her daughter to retain her independence no matter what. "Make sure you’re always able to support yourself," she says. "Start saving and investing from day one."

#6. Follow Your Passion

Janet McGrotha, 51, of Jonesboro, Georgia, hopes that her 21-year-old daughter, Dana, will find her passion early, even if it comes with risks. "For years, I was prisoner to a paycheck," she says. "I brought home a good salary to provide for my children but found the work unsatisfying." Now retired from a career in telecommunications, McGrotha wonders whether she’d do it all again. "I know I would put my own needs aside to meet the needs of my family," she says, "but I would plan differently so I could also do what I loved." Dana is an English major who loves to write — not exactly a surefire income generator. "I still say she should go for it," McGrotha says, "even if it means writing that bestselling novel in her off hours!"

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