What decades in offices and board rooms has taught me about fostering women in the workplace
The CEO of my very first "real" employer was my friend Jenny's grandfather. The CEO of my next "real" job was a JD/Ph.D., who had me work at his kitchen table with his cat. The CEO of my next job was a beloved British entrepreneur with a twinkle in his eye, who treated me like I was his smart granddaughter and probably called me "honey" a dozen of times. The next job I worked at was at a huge company, but the General Counsel was a well-spoken, amiable British gentleman. The next job I worked at was a scrappy re-incarnation of a 40 year old software company, led by another man, this time a visionary, tenacious Minnesota native with energy and optimism to spare.
I've been working through at least two decades and while I have encountered many female leaders, I have not yet worked for a company helmed or owned outright by a woman, not even when I had my own Consulting Firm and took on private clients.
Does this cause me anguish? No. My own mother openly admitted that having a career was not much of an option for her and her friends, who were all ardently expected to be married by the age of 21. I feel extremely lucky for the benefit of the few extra decades that allowed me to have an education and career. I've spent many years supporting HR functions at companies as well, and feel fortunate for the opportunities that I've found. It is clear to me that many working women never fully realize their potential. If I could wave a magic wand, knowing everything I know now, this is what I would put in place at every employer for which it would be realistic:
Treat Employees Like Adults
People often equate control with leadership, but they are not the same thing. As a leader within your organization, you should feel confident that you hired good people. If you hired good people, you shouldn't have to baby-sit them (except for the most entry-level roles). If people need an hour off or the flexibility to work at home because the plumber is coming, or because they need to pick up their child from day camp, they should be able to simply tell you about it, not ask for your permission. You should be able to trust your employees to check their schedule and ensure that any important matters are taken care of. If you don't have this trust over your employees, well, maybe you shouldn't be hiring people.
Strong Paternity Coverage
When I had my son, I was in labor for 19 hours and ended up electing for a C-section in the 11th hour. It was such a physically grueling process, I didn't recover enough to move around easily until about six months later. During this time, I was so lucky to have a dedicated and involved partner, who allowed me the time and space to heal. The only problem? He had no paid leave. Many families now do not have the benefit of grandparents or family close by, or the financial means to pay for assistance or child care. Many couples rely heavily on each other for most parental duties. By empowering men and treating them like equals under parental leave policies, you enable them to better support your female employees.
Natural Placement of Women on the Executive Leadership Team
Here is a clue: If anyone on the Board or Executive Team has made any statement to the following effect, your company is probably not succeeding here: "We really need to put a woman in this position." I'm unimpressed with the "token" woman approach. It's like watching a movie where the only minority character is a goofy best friend - you know you're not seeing real inclusion, just a halfhearted attempt to tick a diversity box. This is a subtle point because it speaks to the very heart of company culture. Women should seamlessly fit into Executive Leadership (and NOT just as the Marketing Team or HR Lead). When I look at an Executive Team and see only men (or all men and one "token" woman), I already know that I'm not at a woman-forward company. The next place I look? The roster of speakers at the Annual Sales Meeting/Kick-off. Most large companies have an event like this each year. If the overwhelming number of speakers are men, I definitely have concerns about equity within an organization. No number of "celebrating women in the workplace" Zoom calls can compensate when women's voices are not heard at the highest level of the company.
Reserved Parking for Pregnant Women
It is simply considerate to show support for the physical demands on those of us who carry children. It shouldn't be much trouble to negotiate for extra parking space in a commercial lease if necessary. In parts of the country where parking comes with a lot of restraints, it might be nice to offer some kind of voucher instead.
Expanded Parental Leave Policies
New Zealand recently passed legislation directed at allowing parental leave policies to cover those families that have experienced a loss of pregnancy. Only when women's experiences are shared can leaders in the workplace understand that this may be a circumstance where someone may not feel comfortable pursuing bereavement leave or perhaps taking any leave at all. Many companies have expanded their parental leave to six months or a year. These policies have often fallen short for many women and deserve to be viewed with a critical lens for all areas of improvement, especially now that most companies are global. I was once pregnant the same year as my boss in the UK. I received 8 weeks of leave, she received a full year of protected employment (at least 6 months of which were fully paid.) Now that it is so easy to compare notes across borders, employers should be sensitive to these discrepancies.
I once took a year and a half off to move across the country and start my own consulting firm. My adventures were cut short due to personal circumstances. When I decided to interview for jobs closer to my family, I discovered that every single interviewer was focused on this "gap" and wanted to hear my explanation. Many women have such gaps, most often because of child-rearing and care-taking for relatives. During the pandemic, record numbers of women were forced out of the workforce for these very reasons. As employers, we all need to stop emphasizing women's departures from the workforce or viewing them as times where skills atrophy. In fact, we should champion programs that help women re-enter the workforce as valued employees.
Minimize Invasive Technology Oversight
There is always an onslaught of software oriented toward measuring productivity. I feel confident that 99% of it misunderstands what productivity even is, or views it through a biased lens. Many women need to flexibility to use a company-issued laptop to check on child's homework assignment schedule, buy a different child a pair of new socks, schedule a wellness check up for their elderly parent, respond to a customer's inquiry, review a corporate document and prepare a report for their co-worker - all within the same hour! Employers should focus on outcomes, period.
Adjust Performance Review Criteria and Processes
As noted above, so many women have been adversely affected by this pandemic, both personally and professionally. So, why have so few entities formally adjusted their expectations? Schools continued with standardized testing, with little regard to the difficulties of online education. Workplaces still went through standard performance review processes. Especially when the responsibilities of childcare, elder care and housekeeping fall disproportionately on women, for several years after the pandemic, conscientious employers should take care to adjust expectations.
Mental Health Support
The responsibilities mentioned above fall on the shoulders of high functioning female employees as well as entry-level. Especially for those women who are the "token" female executives, the pressure can be extremely high and take place in an environment where colleagues may offer little understanding. During my entire career, one of the most frequent complaints that I have heard from female colleagues is that their male boss's expectations are shaped by the fact that he has a stay-at-home-wife handling the messy details of life, whereas these female colleagues were knee keep in the details of their own.
I have a friend who lives in a million dollar home (I realize that in some parts of the country, a million dollars will get you a leaky studio above a nail salon, but here in the Midwest, this is impressive real estate), as her and her husband both have great jobs - and she still frets over what to make for dinner, how to keep up with laundry, etc...For men, as their professional success increases, their responsibilities at home often seem to decrease. For the women I know, this has rarely been the case.
In addition, when you are one of the few (or the only) woman in leadership, you can feel a lot of pressure to not "show any cracks in the armor." I've experienced that myself. All of this puts women at high risk of burn-out and makes it imperative for employers to have good mental health support available for employees who need it.
The events of the last few years have been exceedingly challenging, especially for women of color. As managers and leaders, we must check in with our teams, and make it clear that we care about more than just ensuring that work is being completed on time. If we don't show genuine care for our employees, what gives us the right to ask them to show genuine care for the company, their tasks and projects, or our collective success? Some people - especially men - may have evolved in a culture where it seems "soft" to really ask how people are doing, personally and professionally. Still, for many women, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes a huge difference.
I've included stories, anecdotes and useful tips I've gained over my career as an Entrepreneur, Board Member, Executive and Senior Counsel. I hope you can find ways to navigate to your own dreams by learning from my experience! Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your own stories. Stay inspired!