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    Inspired to extend a helping hand to ambitious women working in corporate America, a veteran executive offers honest, practical, slightly irreverent advice about navigating companies that are run and populated predominately by men: how to interpret their sometimes surprising behavior, avoid common mistakes, flourish with the good guys, deal with the bad guys, and nurture a wonderful, satisfying career in a non-traditional role.

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  • TABLE OF CONTENTS

    The Spirit of the Discreet Guide
    FIRST PRINCIPLES
    The Facts of Life
    In and Out of the Men’s Room
    Tuning In and Dropping Out
    Hold It Right There, Lady
    Skeptical Spectacles and a Critical-Thinking Cap
    YOUR SISTAS AND YOU
    Whose Girl Are You?
    Taking Care
    You’re Different, and That’s Only Mostly Bad
    Impressions and the Real Thing
    Sistas
    EARLY MANEUVERS
    School Days
    Your First Company
    The Cubette
    NAVIGATION TIPS
    Guiding Lights
    The Big C’s: Competition, Challenge, and Conflict
    DANGER—FALLING COCONUTS
    Sit Down and Shut Up
    How Do You Get Anything Done?
    He Doesn’t Think You’re Very Smart
    But Don’t Be Dumb
    TOUCHY SUBJECTS
    After Hours
    One-on-One: Danger Zones
    Sex At Work
    GUYS, GUYS, GUYS
    The Big Guy
    The Good Guys
    International Guys
    The Messed-Up Ones
    Bad Guys
    Super Bad Guys
    YOU’RE A BIG GIRL NOW
    Managing—Between a Rock and a Hard Place
    Work—Why You’re Paid
    THE EXECUTIVE WOMAN’S DILEMMA
    What? I Can’t Hear You
    Courage
    Common Sense
    A Powerful Combination
    THE PRIDE OF THE LIONESS
    Power and Risk
    Leadership
    THE DIAMOND

Choosing Your First Company – For Recent Female Graduates

Excerpt from The Discreet Guide for Executive Women

When you are making a decision about where you want to work, you need to know how your functional area and your gender are represented at each company, along with the usual considerations of position and salary. Reading this section will help you determine if your area of specialization is valued at the company and how to look for signs of a “glass ceiling,” which will make it more difficult for you to progress rapidly. When you consider competing salary offers, it is also important to know what questions to ask about the personnel evaluation process. Finally, issues regarding size, reputation, and culture of the companies are reviewed. Although most job choices are made on the basis of location, to the extent that you have geographic flexibility, these considerations will help get you on the right path to building your A+ resume.

Who’s In Charge?

Some companies are finance-driven, while others are marketing- or engineering-driven. Be sure your function is considered a priority in that company and that representatives from your department are seated on the senior strategic committees. Money and opportunity will flow down from them, and you want to be in line to receive them. Sometimes you can tell what functions are most highly-valued by looking at the background of the last few CEOs and the areas of expertise that are represented on the board of directors. You’ll benefit from the training you get in companies where your function is strong, and having that company’s name on your resumé will help you throughout your career.
The more you study your company, the more you will understand what strategies the company uses to remain profitable and differentiate itself from the competition. Some companies rely heavily on marketing and advertising to maintain their competitive edge. Others are distinguished by their excellent financial management and careful investments. One company might be a sales powerhouse, with an astounding distribution network throughout the globe, ready to latch onto any product that comes their way, while another focuses on unique and exquisite technology which only requires a small but highly-educated sales force to reach their niche market. Think about how your functional area contributes to the overall strength and strategy of the company. The best company for you will be one in which your functional area is considered very important.

Where Are the Girls?

You must also consider the representation of females at your target company. Are there at least one or two women at senior levels who aren’t related to a founder or an owner? If there’s only one woman on the board and only one senior female human resources person at the top, I’d be leery. It’s not a knockout, but you might scrutinize the next level down to see if women are represented at the vice president level and if they’re in charge of large numbers of employees. If there’s only a smattering of women in staff or support positions, or in charge of special projects, and none in line positions (those that drive profitability), definitely hesitate. It might be very difficult to pioneer a path for women in that environment. If you’re ready for that kind of challenge, and you’re willing to “go first” and open the company up for women to follow behind you, good for you! But be cognizant of how tough it’s going to be. You may face more than the usual amount of discrimination.
Obviously these considerations only apply in male-dominated companies. If the company you’re looking at is run by women, you don’t need to be concerned about that, but you’re probably not reading this book in that case!

Good Choices

Suppose you’re a recent graduate with a finance degree, and you’re offered entry-level positions with similar salaries at two different companies. The first one is a traditional blue-suit pharmaceutical company with a token woman on the board and thin female representation at senior levels. On the other hand, several female mid-managers in your functional area have been pointed out as up-and-coming, and some of the most senior male executives have a finance background. The company is known to be finance-driven. The second company is a high-tech outfit in Silicon Valley, reputed to be a great place to work, with a non-traditional culture. There are lots of women in finance at the manager level although they’re located in audit and accounting, rather than in strategic roles. Engineers and technicians hold the most senior positions, and they are exclusively male. Some board members are women although their areas of expertise don’t seem to be particularly aligned with the company’s core businesses. Which one do you choose?
This is a real-life example. These were the two final companies I chose between when I graduated. I selected the pharmaceutical company despite its “old boys’ club” feel. The high-tech firm, although its fun culture was appealing, worried me because all the women were relegated to staff roles, and because the power in the company was clearly concentrated in engineering. As a female finance person, I was concerned I’d be sidelined and would struggle for training and opportunity.
Your choices are bound to be different and more complicated in some way or another than mine, but I hope you take the long-term view when you choose. You probably won’t stay at your first company for your entire career, but if you make a good choice, your tenure may be long, and perhaps you will be there forever. Think about how this company’s name will look on your resumé and what message it will send to your future employers about your priorities. Experienced management, good business practices, opportunity, and training should be considered along with the starting salary.

A Quantified Rating System Is Better for You

You should certainly attempt to negotiate your salary if the offer from the company you prefer is lower than others you receive, but you should also inquire about the personnel evaluation process, how frequently it occurs, how formalized it is, and whether or not a salary adjustment is typical at that time. A personnel evaluation process that includes a quantified rating system tied to salary increases is better for you because there’s less room for gender discrimination. Ask what typical annual increases have been over the past few years, what bonuses you would be eligible for, and whether or not they have been paid, typically. It may turn out that a higher opening offer would be quickly surpassed by the salary at another company after a couple of years.

Large Versus Small

I would recommend that your first company be a large corporation, rather than a small company. Being hired into a Fortune 500 company gives you credibility for the rest of your career. Going through the hiring process and earning your stripes there will also give you immediate status. Large companies provide a great starting place because they invest in their new hires with training and career management. Since they’ve chosen you, they‘ll go to considerable effort to develop and prepare you for a long career at their company. Remember, your company wants you to stay and grow. They’ll put you where you’ll be successful because it’s in their best interest. It’s up to you as the years go by to decide if you want to stay or not, but don’t overlook the advantages a large corporation offers you.
In addition, large companies have usually worked hard to establish good corporate practices that will be beneficial to learn. You can learn now what a good employee handbook looks like, what fair personnel policies are, objective ways to establish roles and responsibilities, logical titles, what a balanced organizational chart looks like, and so forth. That will help you throughout your career, especially when you need to deal with these issues when you have a more senior role. Large companies have the resources to devote to personnel issues and get them right. This can set a high standard for you and give you a solid foundation to build on.

American Versus Non-American

At the risk of being politically incorrect, I’d suggest that you join an American company if you’re an American woman looking for work in the U.S. There is discrimination at American companies, but the percentage of women in senior positions is still highest at American companies. Canadian and British companies aren’t far behind, and I enjoyed working for a British company for a number of years, but be aware that if the company’s culture is very different from a typical American company, you’ll look like an alien and struggle to fit in. I’d particularly hesitate to join a company headquartered in Asia where working women are still a minority. There may be exceptions, but make sure you start out with a healthy dose of skepticism before you’re convinced to take a job at a non-American company.

What They Claim Versus What’s Visible

During the interview process, I wouldn’t ask directly about opportunities for women. Since the results are pretty visible, you can see for yourself how the company is doing. And, reality is likely to be different from any official response you’ll receive. I wouldn’t pay much attention to any claims by the company that they’re “gender-blind.” Nobody is truly gender-neutral; it’s just something they’ve been told to say. It’s easy to avoid companies that have a history of sex discrimination lawsuits, but some places appear to offer good opportunities when, in fact, they don’t. Some companies have programs designed to promote women or have put considerable effort (and expense) into marketing themselves as a “good place to work for women,” but the results just aren’t there when you look at representation at the senior levels. Think of how long professional women have been entering the workforce—at least three decades, right? If there are opportunities for women at that company, you should be seeing some at the top. Here’s another time you can practice putting on your skeptical spectacles and your critical-thinking cap in the corporate world. There will be lots more!
I wouldn’t want your questions to raise any flags about you as though you could be a “problem.” It’s unfortunate, but companies are so worried about legal issues that it might compromise your candidacy if they think they’re hiring a whiner or someone who might eventually sue. I would take note of all gender issues, but I wouldn’t talk about them to company employees. Obviously, you’ll make your own decisions based on your particular circumstances, but I would start with this very safe approach.

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  • About the Author

    Raised on a farm in southern Indiana by an idealistic professor and a feminist homemaker, and after language and film studies in Europe, Jennifer was an unlikely candidate to graduate from a leading business school and enter corporate America. To her surprise, she excelled in her new world and spent the next twenty years building a scintillating career, rising from Financial Analyst to Chief Financial Officer and Corporate Secretary, working for big pharma and biotech companies in the US, Europe, and the UK.

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