Empowerment for women in the workforce is in vogue. Hiring women, promoting women, paying women equally and stopping the harassment of women is getting all the right kind of press. Finally. And for that, I am grateful. (Note that grateful does not equal satisfied.
We have a long way to go in reaching equal status with men, promoting and encouraging racial diversity and fair pay for all.) While I’m thrilled that we’re celebrating the empowerment of women, we’re ignoring a prevalent practice that can be seen daily in many workplaces. Women putting and keeping other women down.
Did I really just say that? Yes, unfortunately, I did.
Generally speaking, you can find two types of women in leadership roles.
Those who believe that the opportunity for women in leadership is a zero-sum game. In other words, the belief that there is only room for one woman in that boardroom and it’s going to be me.
Then there are women who categorically reject that theory. They believe that all boats rise with the tide and that there is room for many of us at the table.
It’s no surprise that no woman in her right mind would actually admit to the former line of thinking. As a matter of fact, the women who practice this behavior generally work overtime to tell the world how wonderful they are to other women. And yet, in practice, they take every opportunity to keep other women down rather than lift them up. I know this because I have worked for women like this. Having a woman in a more senior role than you put noticeable effort into keeping you down rather than lifting you up is confusing and soul-crushing. As a result of my experiences, I have purposely sought out female leaders in my industry in hopes of finding inspiration, mentoring and support elsewhere. For me, it’s been a more difficult journey than I think it should be. I also know it’s not just me. Once I started talking about this taboo subject, I quickly learned that most people see this behavior happen in their workplace.
My way of combating this is to try to be the kind of female leader that I wish I had as I was coming up. Today I have the great fortune of working alongside other female leaders at my company who operate in the same way. For those women making a purposeful decision to encourage and support the woman on their team, here’s what that looks like in practice.
Create opportunities for her to shine.
Within an organization, particularly one that is large, matrixed or decentralized, it’s important for your super stars to get greater visibility. As a manager, it’s your job to help your team members achieve that. Can she present at a company meeting, attend an important client meeting or participate in an industry event? Can you nominate her for an award? Consider what specific actions you can take to help others see her gifts the way you do.
Remove obstacles so she can be successful.
Removing obstacles is a critical part of being an effective leader. Once you make sure your direct reports understand the vision and what drives success for the company, get out of her way and let her determine the roadmap to getting it done. Be mindful that she will inevitably run into obstacles along the way. Many of them will be internal and as a manager, you will have the ability (and responsibility) to support her and clear her path so she can get the job done.
Encourage her to realize her potential.
As women, we are multi-dimensional and we want to succeed in all aspects of our lives, including at home and in our careers. At work, we are often reticent to try things before we feel we are 100% ready or qualified. We live with Imposter Syndrome. Give the women on your team the encouragement to get out of her comfort zone. Set expectations high because she is capable of achieving them. Create an environment for her to feel safe making decisions, failing, fixing it and moving on.
Find out what’s important to her and help her get it.
Each person’s approach to her career is different and the goals vary by person. For some women, they strive for flexibility. They want the ability to achieve their goals, but don’t necessarily want the expectation that they will be at their desk eight hours a day, five days a week. Other women want a career path. They want to create a plan that includes your help in getting her to the next level. Some women work strictly for the money and are constantly thinking about the next raise. And yet others may be working to create new experiences that will build out their resume. Spend time with her, figure out what drives her, don’t judge her and help her achieve her goals.
Lead by example, not with lip service.
There are so many women today trying to balance their passion for their career, spending time with their kids, caring for their aging parents, traveling, staying fit and various other things. They want to work for a company that respects their desire to do it all. As a manager or company leader, it’s important to always remember that your actions speak much louder than words. Consider this, are you the kind of leader who sets the example of going on vacation and working the entire time? Do you constantly send emails late at night or during the weekend? It doesn’t matter what you tell your employees about respecting their personal time, if you don’t respect yours, they will follow your example not listen to your words.
If you’re reading this and realizing that your leader doesn’t practice any of this, but instead she seems more invested in keeping you where you are and promoting herself internally, that can be a tough pill to swallow. There is no one right answer to address this. First and foremost, talk to her about it and tell her how you’re feeling. Hopefully, she simply isn’t aware she’s doing this and is open to feedback and change.
Most importantly, regardless of how you’re treated and what level you’re currently at, be the person you want others to be. Practice empathy and learn what you can from those around you. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s bad behavior can be a learning experience that can help you grow. In an ideal world, women would see each other as part of a sisterhood, not as competition. Imagine if we all supported one another, picked each other up when we fall down, celebrated each other’s successes and encouraged each other to achieve what we’re capable of doing and being. We’d all be unstoppable.
By Julie Koepsell
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