Is Your Career Ruining Your Credibility?

You make good money, have your own assistant, even snagged the office with the best view. So why are you so embarrassed to tell people what you do for a living?

Former financial analyst Stacy Bromberg, 35, used to hold her own with the big-shot lawyers and bankers in her family. Then she accepted a lucrative offer to be a senior VP of strategy for a major cosmetics company. "Instantly, I became the punch line at every family get-together," she recalls. "When I chimed in to a political discussion, my uncle asked how I found time to read the headlines when I was busy testing out lipsticks. Now whenever I talk to him, I end up overcompensating, spending the whole conversation dropping fancy words, mentioning my assistant and whatnot, just so he and everyone else in the family knows they're dealing with a somebody. But I often sit up at night wondering if I'll ever be taken seriously again."

We all know women are judged by how they dress, talk, and act on the job. (One Dutch study found that even adopting your husband's last name after getting married can cost you credibility points at work.) It's only reasonable, then, that we'd also be scrutinized for the actual careers we choose. Though women represent nearly half the workforce and occupy positions of power unthinkable even a decade ago, many of us have put off marriage and families to get there. Some women complain that that's resulted in a tacit, insidious pressure to secure the kinds of jobs that justify all those trade-offs. "Traditionally, a man's job has been the most important of his social roles, whereas for a woman, being a wife and mother was the most important role," says Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "But now women have double the social scrutiny because there's still lingering pressure to get married and be a good parent, but on top of that they're also judged on their jobs. So women face it on all fronts."

Dinner parties used to be where Sabrina Fang, 37, would shine. "When I told people I did public relations for the Humane Society, they just gushed Ᾱ everyone likes saving puppies," she says. But since Fang started working for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for companies like ExxonMobil and Alcoa, she garners a wholly different response. "Most people I talk to Ᾱ like the parents of my daughter's playmates Ᾱ are polite enough not to interrogate me or say something derogatory," she says. "But I know some of them are thinking, How can you work for big oil?"

For those quick to invoke Mom's patented advice about not worrying what others think Ᾱ well, that's easier said than done. "So what do you do?" has become the de rigueur opening line for introductions, inescapable shorthand for how much you earn, where you live, and whom you hang out with. (Your job determines just about every connection you make online, too, thanks to Facebook friend recommendations, LinkedIn, and apps like Sonar.) "Even during a recession, casual conversations often turn to work Ᾱ and where you work and what you do there is important in how people perceive you," says Maslach.

That's why Penny Smith loathes accompanying her energy-exec husband to the swanky cocktail parties they are routinely invited to in Washington, D.C., where they live. "Most people, especially powerful women, totally dismiss me once they hear what I do," says the 30-year-old English-as-a-second-language teacher. "They know I don't make a lot of money and can't really help them network. I think some of them actually pity me, like I'm a failure for not being some important D.C. power player. The thing is, I like my job. I just don't like the response it gets." In the car on the way home, Smith will usually complain to her husband about how miserable these outings make her feel Ᾱ until she reminds herself why she got into the profession in the first place: for the satisfaction that comes from teaching important skills, like reading and writing, and helping kids who may be having a hard time at school adapt to the new language. And the perks help, of course. "I spend every summer sitting by the pool, sipping daiquiris, while everyone else is trapped at the office or on their BlackBerrys until midnight," Smith adds. "It must be exhausting spending your life trying to impress people and schmooze with everyone in the room in hopes of it leading to a promotion or a new job."

But there's a cruel irony in the situation: While women like Smith take heat for having low-wattage jobs, women on the other end of the spectrum are judged just as harshly. "If a woman has an archetypal masculine job that shows she's powerful or aggressive Ᾱ like a criminal defense attorney, a politician, or a cigarette lobbyist Ᾱ she will absolutely be judged because her job is inconsistent with feminine stereotypes of what a woman should do," explains Arthur Brief, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Utah and an expert on workplace bias. "People view her much more negatively than a man doing the same job. For a woman, people would be more likely to assume it means, She must be a real bitch." If you hold a high-influence post, you're a bitch; if you don't, you're meek and should step out of the way of the big kids.

For Smith, the ESL teacher, finally letting go of perceived slights has led to better, more meaningful social interactions. "When my husband and I are first introduced to people, they gravitate to him because he has a powerful job and lots of connections. I'm 'just' a public school teacher. It sucks to be dissed at first, but then I realize that anyone talking to me after that is doing it because they actually like me, not because they're hoping I can do something for them down the line," says Smith. "At the end of the night, my husband will usually have four or five people's cards and plans for drinks or coffee, while I'm lucky if I have one. But when that woman calls me, it's not to ask me to set up a meeting for her with my boss, or if she can drop my name to her new client. Call me crazy, but I think I end up with the better deal."