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The 'Earning It' Author's Advice for Working Women

What Joann S. Lublin learned from interviewing 52 star businesswomen

By Kerry Hannon

Although everyone takes a different career path, there’s usually a common spine of the underlying moves that makes success feasible. Just ask Joann S. Lublin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, management news editor for The Wall Street Journal and author of the fine book about working women, Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World.

I just interviewed Lublin for her advice to working women, which you’ll see below. But first, a few words about the book.


In Earning It, Lublin shares tips gleaned from interviews with 52 elite businesswomen, mostly current or former CEOs. At the end of each chapter, Lublin offers sage advice on topics ranging from sexual harassment to the pay gap to two-career couple challenges.

Her Challenging Move Up the Ladder

To me, some of the most appealing (if infuriating) parts of the book are when Lublin recounts her own challenging road to management positions. If you’re a working woman over 50, I think they may sound sadly familiar.

For instance, on the last day of Lublin’s Journal internship in 1969, her boss walked her out of the office and kissed her on the lips. And when looking for her first permanent job after college, an editor she had met previously urged: “Make sure you wear that cute miniskirt you wore the last time.”

So how are things going these days for working women?

The State of Working Women Today

When I asked Lublin, she pointed me toward Women in the Workplace 2016, a comprehensive study of 132 companies from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. It found that although the numbers of women in senior leadership positions has been rising gradually, women still hold fewer than a quarter of them.

After I finished reading Lublin’s book, I instantly wanted to share it with my twentysomething nieces who are in the early days of their careers. But Earning It is packed with pointed advice for women of all ages.

2 Takeaways From 'Earning It'

Two of my favorite takeaways:

Confront self-doubts about your capabilities. I don't know many successful women who at one time or another haven’t felt like they’re an imposter and that the jig will be up when it’s discovered. “If you hear that voice, you need to overpower it with another voice that says, ‘I do belong,’ recommends Ciara Shih, CEO of Hearsay Social, the social media advisory firm, in the book.

Check your look in the mirror. “Dress, talk, and act in ways that match the next job you seek. It helps signal executive presence,” Lublin writes.

And, she adds, your body language should underscore the impression of strength. That means sitting forward at a conference table and assuming a wide stance when meeting eyeball-to-eyeball with a male counterpart.

Author, Joann S. Lublin
Author Joann S. Lublin

Q and A With Joann S. Lublin

Here are highlights from my interview with Lublin:

Next Avenue: What are the smartest work tactics for women you have learned over your career writing about work?

Joann S. Lublin: They boil down to four key tactics. These are applicable to women at any stage of their career.

First, demonstrate your prowess early and often. You cannot hide under a bushel. Find something that nobody can quibble with and you can therefore be measured on how well you are doing because people can see it.

Second, get noticed. Get sponsored by someone who is further up the food chain, preferably an executive level person who recognizes a high potential like you and decides he or she wants to take you under his or her wings and have you be their protégé. There are more women in executive positions now. Certain executives interviewed for this book found a prominent woman outside their workplace to serve as their mentor.

Third, take on impossible assignments. In my book, I call these ‘Mission Impossible roles.’ These are the gigs that no one else wants to do because they are thankless, or fruitless or could never possibly work. But you somehow think you have the moxie, or you have the brains or you've got the answers to make it work…and you’ve got somebody watching your back when you do that.


Fourth, take calculated risks. You don’t just go jumping off the cliff. You make sure that you've got plan B and you’ve got plan C. When Ellen Kullman [formerly CEO of DuPont] was asked to spearhead a new division when she was a vice-president, but was not provided any details about it by the then-CEO, everyone told her not to take it. But she hedged her bets by requesting a ‘get of jail free’ card. ‘Will you take care of me if this turns out to be a complete disaster?’ she asked. Her boss said he would give her a lateral move to a comparable position than the one she was giving up. Therefore, while it was risky, she made sure it was a calculated risk.

How concerned are you about women in their 50s and 60s losing jobs due to their age and current pay?

Given that women throughout their career suffer from the pay gap, this is concerning. Some of the numbers in my pay bias chapter are pretty mind numbing. [According to research by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, in 2015, female full-time workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent.]

Obviously, to the extent that women in their 50s and 60s are losing their jobs, they are already at a disadvantage from a pay standpoint. And the age discrimination issues that men and women face are compounded when you’re a woman.

Like all the things I talk about in the book, it is a matter of finding allies. There are all kinds of fabulous women’s organizations that try to help women in all stages of their career in a variety of ways. Last week, I was in Detroit to give a speech for Inforum, a professional networking and business support group for women throughout Michigan and the Midwest. It has all kinds of programs and workshops to teach women how to make the most of their careers.

By the same token, there are lots of outplacement counseling organizations out there and smart women losing their jobs should demand that their employers get them that kind of assistance.

What is the best way to find work after 50 for women —particularly those who have taken a few years off their career path to raise kids or care for aging parents or spouse?

This is interesting. At General Motors, there’s a program called Take 2 for experienced professionals who took an employment break of two or more years in their field and are looking to re-launch their careers. It’s a 12-week paid internship. They just started it in the spring. Most of them were were stay at home moms who had stayed out of the workforce for anywhere from two to 24 years, and they brought them back for a paid internship with the understanding if they did well they would get permanent jobs, and they did.

If you’re in the tech field, companies are in the battle for talent and are looking at an undervalued resource — which is women returning to the workforce. Companies like IBM, Alphabet (the parent of Google), IBM and a whole bunch of start-ups are using internships to help women get back to work and up to speed on the latest technology, so they can be competitive in the workplace.

There are also companies that have re-entry programs limited to people who were out for a couple of years. These are mostly accounting and consulting firms. They stay in touch through social events, programs and ongoing education to keep people tangentially up to speed on emerging issues in their profession.

The other thing, of course, and the point I make strongly in the book is networking. Even if you are not in the workforce, you should be focusing on networking.

Get on a nonprofit board, where your talents can be used. It doesn't matter if it is the PTA. If you are the treasurer and you have a financial background, then they are using your talents. Ask to be the fundraiser. Let me be the person who tries to go get a foundation grant, so we can have a better after-school program or playground.

There are all kinds of ways a person not in a full-time, doing 80 hours-a-week career path can stay current with their profession. I think continuing education, particularly if you are in a profession, is critical to finding work after time out for women and men.

What is the biggest surprise for you that came out of your reporting for Earning It?

I have read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I have been married to the same guy for over 40 years. I know the importance of having a supportive spouse. But I was surprised that at least eight women of the 52 I interviewed had husbands who chose to become stay-at-home dads. And that in itself gave them a very important advantage when their careers were really starting to take off.

I asked Mary Dillon, who is now CEO of Ulta Beauty and a former CEO of U.S. Cellular, if her career trajectory would have been different if her husband, a scientist, had not chosen to stay home. I thought her answer would be, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have been a CEO of a public company once, let alone twice.’ Instead, she said: ‘What I think would have been different is I would have stopped at two kids, and not had four.’


Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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