As a woman in the engineering field, I once worked at a company dominated by men by a ratio of 80 to 1. I made it work – but then again, I’ve never shied away from expressing my opinion, and I can be stubborn, both of which helped me succeed in a male-dominated profession. But what about women who don’t feel they can assert themselves, whether because of the corporate climate, their own demeanor, too much at stake or some other factor? We need all women in the workplace to be supported, not just those who demand it.
The fact is, while the number of women in the STEM field and the workforce generally has increased since I first joined it, many workplaces are still guided by the same old rules of the road, whether through explicit policy or implicit codes of behavior. Worse, the pandemic has inflicted even more difficulties for women employees who struggle to balance work and home responsibilities.
Now that it’s clear diversity isn’t a women’s issue but a business performance issue, it’s time for employers to adopt new policies and encourage new behaviors to accommodate the needs of women in the workplace and allow them to grow their careers. But we also can’t just wait for those changes to happen. There’s a lot that’s within each of our control, as leaders and employees, that could change the experience for women in the workplace for the better.
Changes, Big and Small
Here are four new rules of the road we can all adopt to help encourage gender equality for women in the workplace.
- Allow women to set – and change – the pace for their careers. Work isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. There are times when we can sprint, times when we can walk, and times when we absolutely can run the distance. It’s crucial to establish supportive HR policies that allow women to accelerate or decelerate their work schedule to accommodate caretaker roles. When the pandemic hit, some companies adjusted their policies and programs to better support employees through measures such as more paid time off, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co. However, fewer made adjustments that would reduce employee stress and burnout.
It’s crucial for employees to feel they can ask for what they need. In my case, travel was always an important part of my work, and after my son was born, I returned to the office but chose not to travel for 18 months. I felt empowered to take a pause in my career while I was very focused on my child. Years later, I requested a similar hiatus on travel when my dad fell ill. In both cases, the time-outs accommodated my needs but also left me prepared to return and then to step up the pace when needed.
- Ask women for their opinion, even when they don’t share it publicly. When it comes to inclusion, we often think first of corporate initiatives like mentors and flexible hours. Yet everyday inclusion is perhaps even more powerful because it happens in smaller, more personal ways that ensure women not only have a seat at the table but also the opportunity to be heard.
Meetings are a case in point. Meeting leaders and even attendees should make sure everyone has a chance to provide input, including women who might be reluctant to speak if they’re in the minority or have lower seniority. In these cases, their opinions can be sought after the meeting or at a less intimidating time. By asking for their input, women will feel more supported and included, and the business itself will gain valuable insights that represent a gender-diverse population.
- Encourage people to bring their personal style to the workplace. There’s a reason organizations are trying to move away from cookie-cutter standards: Millennials and Gen Z professionals avoid them. But diversity extends beyond race, gender, ethnicity and abilities, to personal and professional style.
I encourage people to identify a few positive characteristics from the people they work with and develop their own style rather than choosing a single role model or mentor. I’m also a big believer in investing in our professional selves. I read a lot, everything from Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map for her analysis of cultural nuances, to rereading the classic Who Moved My Cheese? to refresh my own style.
- Make it clear that self-care is a priority. Among the many lessons of the pandemic is that self-care isn’t a luxury. It’s a message for leaders and organizations to carry forward into the post-vaccine workplace. Encouraging employees to take time for themselves also enables them to come back and do their best. The workplace is indeed a stressful environment at times (I once had six bosses in six months), and in the era of multi-tasking, it’s easy for us to get carried away by our calendars. Taking time to manage our energy by taking a lunch or blocking out times when we’re not available for meetings should be a part of our job description.
The fact is, all the career advice in the world won’t make a difference in an unsupportive workplace. Advocating a do-it-yourself career approach for women takes attention away from systemic and structural contributors such as discrimination.
As leaders, it’s up to us to advocate for – and pave the way for – gender equality in the workplace. Because the more authentic we are, the more powerful we become, and the better we’re able to direct our energy to providing value to the organization. By working together, the new rules of the road can take us to a better place.
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