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How To Handle Being The Youngest One In The Office

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Jul. 23 2014, Published 11:49 a.m. ET

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Being young person in the working world gives you tons of advantages – you’re a quick learner, a flexible worker, a driven advocate. However, sometimes youthfulness can present you with a couple of challenges. Here’s a couple of ways you can sidestep the “young lady” comments in the workplace.

Throughout college and the years after, I was consistently one of the younger interns, employees, and volunteers wherever I went. I worked hard at each job and tried to gather as much experience and information as I could. However, I kept running into comments and sometimes even behavior that kept getting under my skin. Things like “that’s great, young lady”, “you look so cute today!”, “thanks sweetheart”, and “you’re young, don’t worry!” and variations on that theme really started to bother me. I started to notice that it wasn’t just men I worked with, other older women would do it too.

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1. Dress Professionally

I started talking to mentors, professors, and older “young ladies” who had gone through this before me. I went to a women’s college, which actually gave me a great set of people to talk to about this. Many of the women I looked up to at school were older students and alums who’d worked hard to be recognized for their skills and not their gender or age. I asked one friend who worked in local and state politics about my dilemma, and she shared her experiences with me. She knew she had to dress up a bit for her chosen career anyway, but she saw that other women who were treated with respect toned down the “unique” and instead went with personalized accents like a necklace or scarf instead of a pink jacket and skirt.

 Then I went to thrift stores and got work clothes: the types of jobs I was looking for – museum education positions – required equal parts professionalism and flexibility. I could be writing a program, meeting with an executive director, or sitting on the floor reading a story to toddlers. Therefore, the best options for me were a mix of blazers, comfortable but sharp pants, and nice heels. I also watched the women in the office – those women that gained most respect were more professionally dressed.

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2. Watch Your Language

I made sure I minimized my use of “like” and “um” and made sure to truly annunciate my words. I started to read more, which helped me become more articulate and flexible with language. I avoided speaking up first (which can seem counter-intuitive, but stick with me here), and instead listened to the conversation so I could give an educated, thoughtful response.

3. Build meaningful relationships

One of the best things a college mentor told me was to make friends at my job. He didn’t mean in the buddy-buddy, besties kind of way, but in the let’s-go-to-lunch and get to know each other way. His rationale: people might automatically make assumptions (harmless ones, but assumptions nevertheless) about me until they got to know me, but once they did, I wouldn’t get the “thanks, young lady” comments anymore. I took his advice and asked one of the other women in the office to lunch. Turns out, she was actually dealing with some of the same age issues I was! We talked about our similar experiences and laughed about how silly we felt being so concerned about age. She shared with me how she learned to “talk the talk” with her peers – she would find out about their hobbies and see what kind of interests they shared. The best part of the experience was that her demeanor in the office changed, and everyone else started to treat me with a little more deference too.

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Now that I’ve transitioned out of college jobs and internships and into full-time, professional (salaried!) jobs, there’s a whole host of things I’m learning about the age blind spot. Currently, I’m the youngest person at my office (by a long shot!) and there are fewer women to watch and learn from. The office is also more casual, as west coast offices tend to be. I’ve adapted my process a bit to accommodate for these changes: instead of the heels and blazers, I’m in dark jeans, flats, and nice blouses. I also pay attention to the culture of the office. I look for places where I might show my age, and if there’s a place where I can offer a positive response because I’m young, I do. If there’s a place where I might look young and relatively inexperienced, I hold back. I make sure I do my research before asking questions, but I don’t avoid asking if I need to know.

The “thanks young lady” comments are few and far between now, and I think I’ve started to get a leg up on the “just graduated from college” comment, too. I’d love to know some of the ways you get recognized for your skills and not your age!

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