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Trapped at Work?

Just back from Houston and Miami and I’ve got Texas women on my mind.  I spoke to more than 5,000 attendees at the Texas Conference for Women last Wednesday.  Hundreds talked to me individually—and twice as many have since emailed to share their stories.

Unlike many of the people I meet in my travels, not one of these women is out of work.  They’re all gainfully employed at some of the biggest players in the world—from oil giants to drug companies.   Yet they share one common trait: these women feel trapped.

“I don’t see an opportunity to advance.”
“I doubt there’s a future for me here beyond my current role.”
“I wonder what I could be considered for besides this.”

They were sheepish—almost apologetic—in expressing this frustration.  After all, with 26 million Americans un- or under-employed, nobody with a solid paycheck wants to be seen as a complainer.   We found ourselves half-joking about the golden handcuffs.

So I’ll tell you what I told them.

1.) Talk to your manager: Instead of assuming someone is looking out for your career interests, you must be willing to speak up.  Schedule a meeting with your manager to share your desire to plan a path for advancement. Get feedback on where the boss sees you in the next 6 to 12 months and ask directly for support on fulfilling your specific goals. Suggest some of the skills you’d like to develop and the projects you’d enjoy working on.  Map out a plan, along with a timeframe for achieving it.

2.) Seek support from internal networks: Large organizations have internal groups, including women’s networks, designed to engage participating employees.  Don’t just join; get involved.  Take on a leadership role.  Volunteer for a committee.  Make yourself—and your career goals—known.  When someone gets to know you and your interests, they’re more likely to make introductions or recommend you for opportunities.

3.) Poke around outside: If change in your current organization isn’t possible, start putting out discreet feelers to see what else may be available at other companies on your target list.  This means getting resume ready and taking proactive steps to finding something new.   Having a job puts you at an advantage over those applicants who are unemployed.

4.) Consider a side hustle: Perhaps you have no interest in launching a full-blown job search and you’re not really interested in giving up the pay and perks of your current position.  Starting a side hustle—building or expanding on a small business idea (as long as it’s not against company policy) may bring the stimulation and excitement you crave.   Spark & Hustle is a great resource to help if that’s the route for you.

Taking some form of action is the best way to get unstuck.  It’s so easy to complain about our situation, but if we don’t do anything about it, we lose the right to whine.

If you’ve found a way to get “untrapped” at work, tell us how you’ve done it.


  1. Here are two thoughts to consider.

    One, half of women executives and 68% of CEOs say that lack of significant line experience “holds women back”. Knowing that line experience is critical, get prepared. Study financial management, become an expert in a functional area such as strategic planning, manufacturing, marketing or sales, serve on a nonprofit or advisory board and, the minute the opportunity arises, take a position with profit and loss responsibility.

    And, two, almost fifty percent of women executives cite “developing a style with which male managers are comfortable” as critical to success. Dr. Pat Heim, author of Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams, writes “women often use hedges, disclaimers and tag questions in their speech to involve the other person and maintain the all-important relationship in female culture. When men hear this, they incorrectly assume a woman either does not know what she is talking about, or that she is insecure about her ideas.” Develop a communication style that men are comfortable with.

  2. PJ

    Well, I got “untrapped” by being downsized. I work in Information Technology and was downsized last October. I finally landed a 6month contract in July, but I have to worry about what happens in December as nothing has yet come up for me. At least, thank goodness, I was able to get funding for school and I am working on a Master’s degree in Psychology. Otherwise, I would really lose my mind. I am anxious to get back to full-time work, and I would say if you feel trapped just see what areas of your job cause you the most stress and which ones work for you. Try to identify how you could make it work for you, because it’s no fun looking for work right now.

  3. Joanna

    Excellent advice Tory, especially your suggestion to poke around outside. Everyone should keep their resume up to date, this means making sure that your most current title and accomplishments are listed. I have seen candidates lose out on opportunities because they did not have time to properly update and fine tune their resume when they uncovered a better opportunity. Those who want a job with a different title should design a resume that speaks to that job title and shows how your experience qualifies you for a role that is different than your current position.

    Be proactive, make a target list of companies that you would like to work for. Maybe you start by drawing a 20 mile radius around your home and see if there are any great companies that might offer a shorter commute than your current position. Or, maybe your target list is based on specific industry, like insurance or banking, or maybe you know of certain companies that have high ratings from their employees, they always top the “best company to work for list” in business journals. Or maybe use all 3 criteria! Set up agents on a web crawler site like and have open jobs from these companies emailed to you. By going through this process you may find a better opportunity or not but you will certainly have a much better idea of your options.

    In addition, if you feel stagnant in your current role try going back to school or taking some classes. Maybe CEU’s or maybe a certification or a class to learn new software. This will provide mental stimulation and help you feel like you are “doing something” to improve your lot. You never know who you might meet in those classes, many business managers moonlight as instructors.

    And, gee, if you have that target employer list ready to go than if you meet someone who works for one of your targets it may lead to bigger and better opportunities.

    Keep up the great work Tory!!!

    [email protected]

  4. Katrina L

    The point about joining an in-company network is important. Not just joining the group, but participating in a temporary or on-going leadership role. Many compnanies are also stepping up their internal networking and social media efforts. Is there a chance to contribute your voice there? I have met more women who inspire me to focus on my professional development in these internal groups than other channels. By putting yourself out there, you are helping create your “brand”.

    In addition- use LinkedIn! Connect with current colleagues and then search their connections. Maybe a connection has access to people in a department you want to learn more about. I find that linked in is easier to navigate and make connections in new areas, than trying to work the traditional corporate structure.

  5. Beth H

    I love the people I work for but frankly, my job is somewhat of a deadend job. As I’ve grown and broadened my horizons, I have realized that what makes me tick isn’t my job. I have so many interests and want to do so many things that frankly, work gets in the way. Not to fear — I have changed my perspective on my current job. I take any opportunity afforded me to learn new things outside of my current job duties. I am learning more programs that others may use in the office so that I can be a help to them. I have also become the powerpoint expert. This is paying off, I might add. And I also have the attitude that this pays the bills and allows me to do the things that I enjoy the most. My husband had been unemployed for 2 years, but I was able to pick up a “second” job that helped ease that burden. Now that he is employed part time in a low paying job, I have kept my “second” job and have starting focusing more of my home time on the things that I enjoy – videoing, photography, crafting, baking. I have an hour and 15 minute commute one way to work which I use as a brain storming session to plan my next project and even do some serious soul searching about “if I lost my job today, what road would I take in a career path” and thing of pros and cons to both. Being trapped is a terrible feeling. If it gets too bad, a choice has to be made — quit and take a chance on branching out into a field that one loves or stay and get a new perspective on the current position. Of course, working with great people REALLY helps things not seem so badk.

  6. #1 it’s nice to know I’m not alone. I feel guilty for these feelings, too.

    I think everyone has some great advice so far. I do have a question on Judy’s 2nd point though (both were great)… you talk about ‘a style with which men are comfortable’. This is a tough one. I found when I started working in a male-dominated field that my matter-of-fact nature is quickly labeled ‘b!tchiness’ and being ‘opinionated’ (btw, they’re facts, not opinions fellas, no matter how I state them). In recognition of that reception, I had to adopt a manner that was more inquisitive (asking something instead of telling), or inclusive (letting them think they arrived at the answer instead of me telling them what it is).
    I think your statement is valid, but, at the same time, my experience has shown me that men don’t want me to communicate like a man, they want me to communicate like a woman (even if it didn’t come naturally to me in the first place).
    Any advice on how to hit that in the middle?

  7. Oh, and, thus far, I’ve coped with these feelings by doing a bit of freelancing (writing articles, a little speaking, tech editing industry books, etc, it keeps me engaged and interested in my field).

  8. I know that people often feel trapped by a variety of circumstances including the economy, perceived opportunities or feeling locked in due to personal financial commitments. If a person feels ready to move on but is concerned with the risk of change, then put together a plan to address the risks. If you can’t figure out what else you might do, start investigating anything that remotely sounds interesting. You won’t discover the next big thing without moving forward in self discovery.

  9. KMayer

    I take what I learn and share with myself if the boss balks at suggestions I feel would work. By promoting myself, I can eventually ditch the clients that are holding me back. Doesn’t happen overnight, but it will happen!

  10. I completely agree with you. I think men more than women keep their eyes open for opportunities and they even get first hand knowledge of job opportunities, either from happy hours or golf club meetings. I believe that women should speak up, ask questions, and re-educate themselves when the opportunity presents itself.

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