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Valentine's Day, Pink Ghetto and Career Choice

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February 14 is Valentine's Day. You see stores and establishments decorated in pink colors. You see pink flowers, pink greeting cards and pink teddy bears everywhere. Why is Valentine's Day associated with the color pink? Valentine's Day is represented with colors such as pink and red because it is a day of giving and loving, and red and pink represent love. Aside from love, the color pink today is also commonly associated with femininity, where girls wear pink while boys wear blue. This has not always been so as there was a time when the reverse was true -- girls wore blue while boys wore pink. In 1918, an article in the Ladies' Home Journal declared:

There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl (yes, you read it correctly). The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." But by the 1940s, the tables had turned, and society's equating of pink with femininity and blue with masculinity has remained intact since then.

In the professional world, there is also a term called the "Pink Ghetto" or "Pink-collar" jobs. Pink-collar worker performs work said to be stereotypical women's work and are typically in the service industry. Examples include babysitter/nanny, beautician, flight attendant, florist, receptionist, secretary, administrative assistant, waitress, nurse, etc. A pink ghetto is used to describe the placement of female managers into non-line, staff positions that will not lead them to the board room, thus perpetuating the "glass ceiling." Pink ghetto workers include those working in areas such as human resources, customer service, public relations, accounting, IT maintenance and others that do not impact the company's "bottom line." Staff workers in the pink ghetto support the line workers whose jobs directly impact company's profitability. Line workers in sales, marketing, operations usually have profit & loss (P&L) responsibilities while staff workers don't. In the entrepreneurial world, pink ghetto refers to founders, usually women, who may start hobby-based, non profit-oriented businesses that are not scaleable. Some time ago, a tech journalist even tweeted "Women: stop making start-ups about fashion, shopping and babies. You're embarrassing me." (I'm not sure I 100 percent agree with this particular tweet, which I'll explain later).

So, how do you get out of the pink ghetto? Well, without broad generalizations, every person has the right to decide whether or not he/she wants to be in or out of those professions categorized to be in the "pink ghetto." First, the term "pink ghetto" is rather condescending. Instead of focusing on how to get women out of the pink ghetto, why don't we first focus on choice. Everyone has the power to choose a profession that combines his/her passion, skills and purpose. People also have to understand that their choices lead to consequences. People should be willing to accept those consequences. If one chooses to work in human resources, for instance, one has to understand that it is highly unlikely that he/she will ever be promoted to CEO. If one chooses to open a small unscaleable bakery with no plans for expansion, one should realize that it's highly unlikely the bakery will become a big baking conglomerate.

Now, for those who have decided that they want the chance to reach the C-suite, get a board appointment, be a big-time entrepreneur, and are willing to sacrifice and do what it takes, what can they do to improve their chances?

In the corporate world, take the line positions that can affect company's revenues and profitability. Be willing to be in the "line of fire" and take more risks. A 2012 McKinsey study reported that mid-career and senior women tend to disproportionately occupy staff jobs that do not lead to the top -- 50-65 percent of women VP or higher are in staff roles, compared to only 41-48 percent of men. The study also found that there are more men in line positions, which usually have higher probability to reach the top echelons of executive suites. Additionally, women need to get into more strategic positions -- assignments that expose them to the company's primary sources of revenues, strategic markets and key products. These types of assignments are essential to an executive's development to reach the next level. Women also need to look for good mentors AND sponsors, both men and women. Most people understand the concept of mentorship, but not so much of sponsorship. A mentor is someone to exchange and bounce ideas off of. A sponsor is someone, usually more experienced and quite powerful in the organization, who is willing to put his/her reputation on the line to advocate for his/her protegé to help advance the protégé's career. A good mentor gives advice. A good sponsor advocates for the protegé to earn the opportunity to get ahead. In the political world, this is analogous to the more-established, famous presidential candidate acting as a "sponsor" for his/her less-established, not-so-famous vice presidential candidate. Read "The Sponsor Effect" by the Harvard Business Review, which explains how women often times do not know how to leverage the power of good sponsorships to get ahead, unlike most of their male counterparts. Studies have shown that leading companies that foster successful sponsorship programs are able to advance and retain their best female talent. Another thing I'd advise is to become a mentor. While this may not feel natural to someone who's just starting out in his/her career, in the long run, it helps build one's leadership skills tremendously.

In the entrepreneurial world, dream big, build a strong business plan and execute. Don't worry about people telling you not to start a fashion, shopping, cooking or media business. Have they heard of Tory Burch or Tony Hsieh? How about JK Rowling, Martha Stewart or Oprah? The key is not in what kind of business to start, but in understanding your passion, your skills and your purpose (what the world needs). It's about having the right mindset to succeed and to have the focus and willingness to do the hard work to achieve it.

Let's pivot the conversation from how to get women out of the pink ghetto to how to get women choose what is best themselves and respect and support their choice. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!