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Viewpoint: Women Should Discuss Professional Development with Female Friends

Three business women looking at a laptop in an office.

​Recently, I had a conversation with a close female friend.

Both of us are ambitious when it comes to our careers. Therefore, a good part of our conversation was focused on work. However, what struck me most was what we did not discuss: our approaches to professional development. And when I think about my conversations with other close female friends, I can't recall having a single conversation about professional development.

A close female friend among women is someone around whom you can be yourself, a person you can trust. Women are more likely to identify their closest friend as a woman who is similar in age and someone they've known for years. And most women have three or four close friends.

Strong female friendships offer many benefits for women: These relationships can provide different perspectives, help during stressful situations and even extend the life expectancy of women.

A recent survey found that 1 in 2 women self-describe as very ambitious. However, for women, managing their professional development is often more nuanced than simply seeking opportunities or building relationships with potential mentors and sponsors.

For example, women with dependent-care responsibilities must figure out how to balance their time between family responsibilities and professional development opportunities. Compared with male employees, female employees receive less support from managers and have less access to senior leaders. 

Additionally, female employees are offered fewer high-visibility, mission-critical roles and international experiences. A report by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that fewer women are represented in leadership roles, which creates a lack of female role models in the workplace.

Reports show that female employees:

Women of color often face microaggressions, biases and discrimination, which can negatively impact their perceptions of an organization's culture and their development opportunities.

Why Female Support Is Needed

Given the challenges women experience in securing professional development opportunities, they may benefit from receiving additional support and advice. Seeking guidance from female friends who are in a similar life stage can be beneficial to their career development.

The concept of women using friendships to manage their careers isn't new. Nearly a decade ago, a Forbes article encouraged women to do what men have done for a long time: merge business and pleasure.

Here are five approaches women could use to discuss development opportunities with their close female friends:

1.  Give personal examples and recommendations.

Women can share examples of development experiences they've had in the workplace. Since professional development can occur in several ways (e.g., high-profile projects, mentoring, returning to school), women can benefit from hearing their friends speak about the types of development they have engaged in and which experiences have been most helpful for advancing their careers.

2.  Offer advice on making requests.

Women can advise one another about when and how to make requests for development experiences in the workplace. Specifically, women could discuss approaches they used during conversations with managers and leaders. For example, a woman could share how she requested an expatriate assignment.

3.  Talk about what to avoid.

Women could share examples of development experiences that were less beneficial. For example, those that require administrative duties and offer limited visibility with senior leaders are typically less beneficial to female employees.

4.  Discuss how to overcome barriers.

Women can share the techniques they used to deal with barriers while participating in professional development opportunities. Examples might include responding to co-workers questioning their authority, balancing time between work and nonwork responsibilities, and working through incidents of bias and discrimination.

5.  Share achievements.

Women can make sure to update their resumes and LinkedIn profiles after completing professional development. They can share advice with female friends about how to document new skills they developed and measurable goals they achieved as a result of participating in professional development.

Women pursuing career development experiences can overcome barriers that hinder their success. Having a trusted source with whom they can discuss professional development experiences can support their career overall.

Kyra Leigh Sutton, Ph.D., is the research director for the Center for Women in Business and an assistant teaching professor of Human Resources Management for Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.


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