I recently came across this website where, to celebrate International Women’s Day, business leaders wrote letters to their daughters to collectively pave the way to a brighter future for the next generation of professional women.
This inspired me to write down some truths I wish I’d known at the start of my career. I’m sharing them here for the benefit of my dear daughters, who are currently pursuing their paths well outside of the translation world, and for any other young women out there in the early stages of their professional life.
My beloved daughters,
Disarmingly similar, yet bewilderingly different. That is what you are to me. This could be a letter to my 25-year-old self, except that you’re both so different from me at your age. Yes, I also took years to decide what I wanted to do. Yes, I moved abroad. And yes, I pledged myself to a young man my mother didn’t share common language with. But that’s where the similarities end.
I don’t want to claim the credit for how capable and courageous you’ve grown to be. Instead, I’m grateful for being able to walk alongside you on your journey. We share the same values, and I cherish you for that. You take your time exploring your options, and I respect you for it. You boldly go further than I ever went, and for that I admire you. You are your own distinct selves.
It hasn’t always been easy to understand your choices, but I value you for being different from me. This is the first point I want you to understand: diversity makes sense. In business, a wise leader puts together colleagues who complement each other. Not only because they compensate for each other’s weaknesses, but because diversity helps people feel unique (and everyone likes being unique).
Since you are women and I am a female company executive, I guess I should say a few words about the underrepresentation of women in the top ranks of power. I’m not one of those people who set their goals at birth and relentlessly pursue them to completion. Like most people, I reach a plateau in what I do, grow restless and push myself to the next level to see if I can cut it there too. I keep going until I hit a ceiling. And I haven’t hit many ceilings yet.
Growing up in Finland, I was aware of the invisible career barrier that makes the path to leadership positions difficult for women, but I didn’t see much evidence of it before moving to the UK. The translation industry has a female-dominated workforce, and in my experience talent is recognised all the way to the top – irrespective of gender.
The biggest block preventing women from reaching the top in general is not a lack of competence, but a lack of confidence. So here is my second point: you are already capable. Work on your confidence and make sure it matches the level of your competence. Somebody said to me last week that we rise in a company to the level of conflict we can handle. Pay attention to those skills.
There are organisations set up for the purpose of helping women with this. I loosely follow the work of Aspire, whose tagline is ‘trailblazing women’. The translation industry has its own global peer group, Women in Localization, which provides an open, collaborative forum where women can share expertise and experience and move forward. They even accept male members who are happy to support and work towards this goal.
“Don’t fear if suddenly, one day, you want to start doing things the traditional way. Don’t fear staying still, putting down roots, shouldering responsibility and taking on long-term commitment. You can do that too.”
The third thing I want to tell you is that you are not too young. You are not too young to be taken seriously, to know what you want, to settle down, even to start a family – as long as you understand that I am obviously too young to be any good as a grandmother. Nor are you too old. I went back to university for a second degree – BA in Fine Art – at the age of 35, as I wanted to see how far my talent could take me.
Working full-time as a freelance translator, attending lectures, producing artwork for the portfolio and raising a family (you) turned out to be too ambitious, but my main reason for dropping out was that I thought I was too old to make such a drastic change in my career. I shouldn’t have believed that. Looking back now, I don’t regret the decision and how things turned out, but age was not the right reason to change direction.
Don’t let fear steer your decisions. This is my fourth piece of advice. You have not feared to go out into the world to make it your own. You have not feared to go against what is standard practice, what is expected, what is considered the sensible thing to do. So don’t fear if suddenly, one day, you want to start doing things the traditional way. Don’t fear staying still, putting down roots, shouldering responsibility and taking on long-term commitment. You can do that too.
My fifth and final tip is that work can be done without relentless passion. Most of the time, interest, motivation and commitment matter as much as zeal. It is a truth universally acknowledged that people do business with people, and mostly they do business with people they like and can remember. If you want to succeed in business, be competent, be likeable and be memorable.
Invest in networking and in connecting with people, more than you would feel naturally inclined to do. And when you come to assess your working life at the end of it, remember that there will only be two things that truly matter: what you achieved and how you lived your life in achieving it.
So there you are. Oscar Wilde wrote in his play An Ideal Husband that the only sensible thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. I don’t mind if you do just that. I don’t mind if you become leaders or not, even though I can see great leadership qualities in both of you. I just want you to be kept out of harm’s way and – what a cliché – to be happy. I will love you whatever.