Sally Helgesen Wants to Teach You How to Get Ahead in Your Career


If you’re struggling to earn respect, equality and fair pay in the workplace, you probably know that you’re not alone. Movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo have empowered women to share their experiences and support each other. The question is, what’s next? According to Sally Helgesen in her latest book, it might be time to take a good look at yourself.

Sally Helgesen is an author, speaker and leadership consultant, and her new book, How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job feels especially timely. Cowritten by executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith, the book focuses on the many small ways that women may unknowingly be sabotaging their own careers. The book is a guide to help you break specific habits that could be holding you back and inhibiting your success. I spoke to Sally Helgesen to get some more insight on what inspired her to write the book and what she hopes her readers will take away from it.

How Women Rise author Sally Helgesen
Sally Helgesen, Author, How Women Rise

“On the one hand,” Helgesen says, “It’s time for organizations to really be asking themselves, ‘Are we paying women less? And structurally, why are we doing that?’ But it’s also time for women to say, ‘If I feel like I’m being underpaid or undervalued for my contributions and/or potential, how can I address that? What are some more powerful practices I can adapt that will help me to address my financial wellbeing and future with more intentionality and power?'”

When I first picked up How Women Rise, I didn’t expect it to have much relevance to my life as a freelance writer. I don’t have any plans to run for office or join the executive board of company — the type of positions in which my achievements and career trajectory would really matter. As I read further, however, I realized that this book outlines skills that every woman could find beneficial, as well as naming the habits that many of us need to break. 

“This entire book is really about claiming your achievements, making yourself more visible and getting more support,” says Helgesen. Like me, Sally Helgesen got her start as a freelance writer. She eventually transitioned into writing speeches for executives, ultimately becoming a speaker herself. When Helgesen started getting hired to give speeches instead of write them, she questioned her own value. She remembers thinking thinks like, “I’m just a writer. I’m a content person. I don’t have presentation or facilitation skills. I’m not an organizational psychologist like a lot of my friends are. I’m not qualified to do this.”

Over time, however, her thinking shifted. Sally Helgesen found herself wondering, “Why am I focusing on that? I have so much experience working with women. I really can claim to have expertise and ideas that I I know can be helpful to women.” She forced herself to recognize her own potential — and now she urges her readers to do the same on the pages of How Women Rise.

Own How Awesome You Are

In How Women Rise, a partner at a job placement firm explains that women tend to be more conservative than men in the way they describe their skills and experience to a new potential employer. A woman is more likely to indicate in her cover letter that she is unsure as to whether or not she has the right qualifications for a position.

“Companies end up hiring more men because they sound more confident,” Sally Helgesen states,  “The women are oversharing because they’re trying to be honest, and they’re overvaluing expertise. We are forgetting that we are only perfectly qualified for the job we have right now. You can never be qualified for the next job until you are in that job and doing it.”

Sally Helgesen emphasizes that she is not encouraging candidates to lie about having experience in things that they haven’t actually done. Rather, her goal is to inspire more women to be strong and affirmative in the way that they present themselves professionally.

Focus on Your Potential, Not What You’ve Done in the Past

Helgesen says that women believe their value comes from what they’ve already accomplished, and that could also be holding women back. She referenced research by Catalyst concluding that men tend to be valued for their potential, while women tend to be valued on what they’ve done in the past.

Before you apply for a new job, Helgesen suggests that you begin by thinking about your potential. “There may be things you’ve done that don’t necessarily relate to your last job, but they might show that you have the potential to do a good job in the position that you’re applying for,” Helgesen says. “For example, it could be leading a volunteer effort in your community with real success, or some kind of political activism.” Don’t be afraid to leverage your non-work-related experiences to get you to the place you want to be — they could demonstrate your potential for success.

Sally Helgesen

You Don’t Have to Be a Jerk to Get Noticed

It would be great if whenever you worked really hard and accomplished something impressive, your boss acknowledged your efforts and rewarded you—but for most of us, that’s unlikely to happen. “It’s a busy environment out there,” Helgesen says, “And people aren’t necessarily noticing your hard work — even if it’s their job to keep track of what you’re doing.”

At her workshops, Sally Helgesen asks women to raise their hands if they’re good at being recognized for their achievements. She says that in a crowd of 50 women, an average of about seven hands will go up. Then she asks her audience why they think they aren’t good at being recognized, and hears responses like, “Well, if I have to act like that jerk down the hall to get noticed around here, I would rather not do it.”

To Helgesen, that’s a no-win way of thinking. “That fear of looking self-interested or identifying yourself as ambitious can be really brutal for women in terms of its consequences.”

If you work at a law firm and you see a male colleague talking about how he’s going to make partner in a few years, Helgesen suggests that you suspend your judgment. Instead of viewing your coworker’s behavior as obnoxious and self-promotional, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this that would enable me to represent myself with confidence in a way that I’m comfortable with?”

In order to snag a high-level position at your company (such as making partner at a law firm), you may need to make your intentions explicitly clear so the higher-ups know that you’re interested. “You will not move higher, generally, if you don’t do a certain amount of appropriate self-promotion,” Helgesen says.

Don’t Settle for Where You Are Now

When Sally Helgesen encounters a woman who says that she loves everything about her current job, she offers her candid perspective. “That’s great, but we live in an unstable world, and your job may not always be there,” she says. “If your job goes away, then you will want a Plan B. Ideally, you have been visible and proactive enough that you’re going to have options. If your company is sold, if there is a merger, if your boss leaves and someone moves into their position that you can’t stand, then the state of your employment could change. If you’re satisfied with your job right now, that’s fabulous — but you will want to be prepared in case there are changes.”

“The other thing is this,” Helgesen adds. “We, as humans, feel satisfaction when we’re able to use our best talents and be recognized and known for them. When you’re satisfied, it’s always a good question to ask yourself: ‘Am I really using my talents to the best of my ability? Is this job both satisfying and challenging enough to really give me a sense of mastery in my work? And at the same time, do I feel that I’m being adequately recognized and rewarded for my contributions?’”

According to How Women Rise, becoming an expert at your current job isn’t enough. “From the get-go, my strongest advice to women is this,” Helgesen says. “Yes, learn the job, and yes, do the job well. But also build visibility, connections and your support network — personal, tactical and strategic. You’re going to need a lot of support if you want to keep yourself going and are going to build a career that is both satisfying and sustainable for you.”  

Get Ready to Dream Bigger

Maybe, like me, you’ve never given much thought to taking on a leadership role or running for office, but How Women Rise is the kind of book that will open your mind to new career possibilities.“For 30 years, since I wrote the book The Female Advantage, my personal mission in life has been helping women to recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths,” Helgesen says.

As an author, of course Sally Helgesen wants to sell many copies of How Women Rise — but her dream is bigger than that. “One of my fondest goals would be for this book to become something that women would use to consider running for office, even if it’s a small local office. I think that having more women in positions of power across the board is really essential for change.”

If a woman who has never thought of positioning herself as a leader begins to think that way after reading her book, “That would be, for me, one of the most satisfying outcomes I could imagine,” Helgesen says.


How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job is available now on Amazon.

Connect with Sally Helgesen: Twitter / LinkedIn