How Leaders Can Help Empower Women in the Workplace

By Elise Awwad

March 24, 2022
8 min read

In 2019, we experienced a seismic shift. For the first time, women surpassed men, making up 50.2% of the college-educated labor force, up from 45.1% in 2000 according to the Pew Research Center. While this number is positive to be sure, what’s troubling is women’s advancement in the workplace is stagnant or simply stalling at every step along the way.

Yet even with degrees, women are stuck on the sidelines willing, capable and frankly needed to take on advanced roles that lead to management, directors, vice-presidents, and eventually the c-suite and boardroom. The challenge is complex, as McKinsey discovered in their annual Women in the Workplace 2021 study, the “broken rung” is holding women back. The initial step up to manager is the first place the system fails us, “for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted.” And women of color are more greatly impacted at every level. Until we can figure out how to move more women into management roles the pipeline will continue to be unbalanced. As leaders, we need to ask ourselves what more can we do?

First off, it’s important as leaders for us to recognize why we tend to look at advancing men over women, what opportunities are given to whom, and how we can support the development of our teams equally to balance the scales. Women are fundamentally different, but what makes us different also makes us extremely valuable to lead and help drive business results.

Here are some ways leaders can step up to support women on their teams, and help them achieve the career they deserve:

1 – Help Your Team Chart Their Career Path (P.S. We included a Template for That)

While training for marathons, I plan out my weeks around my runs. Shorter distance runs take different prep work than longer-distance runs. Regardless of the distance, each run is setting me up for the finish line. So come race day, I can envision the finish line, and I know—quite literally—the steps I must take to get there.

Helping teams and individuals go after their career goals should be no different. As a leader, your first step should be to figure out who on your team wants to advance, or who is ready for it and may not even realize it. Then, it’s up to you as a leader to help them develop their career goals and chart their career pathway according to a timeline that works for you both. Some best practices include:

  • Schedule performance check-ins to be quarterly, not once or twice a year.Don’t wait for annual reviews to provide guidance. Today’s workforce fluctuates and teammates who you may want to help advance may choose to take other positions if they’re unaware of your willingness to help.

  • Help them create a career development plan (as in, don’t create it for them). Leverage this template with your direct reports or mentees. The key is to keep an open line of communication and check-in often to ensure women have the tools they need to achieve their goals and feel confident in their talent, skills and voice.

  • Create a plan to accomplish goals together. Utilizing skill pathway sheets is one way to help you and your team stay on track as they continue along their career pathway.

  • Don’t let projects get in the way of helping people advance skills and therefore stay with your organization! The first step is creating a pathway. After that you have to give them the room, flexibility and support to accomplish what was plotted. Sometimes projects will have to be delayed or reassigned to another team member (benefit is this is a learning opportunity for others) in order to give your team members the space to grow and get the development needed to obtain those critical skills.

  • Have your team members take a confidence assessment quiz to help identify areas of doubt and develop an action plan to increase confidence in their voice and curb any sense of uncertainty.

2 – Feedback is key, but it’s not all equal. So, give women the same type of feedback you’d give a male counterpart.

According to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, men received more daily and weekly feedback than women. In addition to the frequency, the type of feedback we give can be biased, and we may not even realize it. Talent-quarterly found that when women get feedback, it’s more likely to be on their behaviors, and is likely to be skewed toward their personality characteristics. What’s holding leaders back from providing constructive, growth-supportive feedback?

These “skewed beliefs” can be well-intended, and even seem rational, but founded on a faulty premise. For example, take the belief that you need to be “kinder” to women. Psychologists conducted two experiments where they demonstrated that women receive less accurate, but kinder feedback.

So next time you’re scheduled to provide a review, plan for it by writing down your feedback ahead of time and truly assessing it. Are you talking about their interpersonal behavior? Or are your notes related to performance-enhancing feedback. It’s up to us as leaders to give the type of unbiased feedback that can help advance women in the workplace.

3 – Offer Learning Resources Inside and Outside Your Organization

Take those career goal templates and help your team identify how they can build on strengths and close the gaps necessary to achieve their goals. Is it through project-based assignments? Workshops? Leadership training courses? Consider talking with your HR business partner to find out what tools and resources exist that can help you as a leader as well as help your team advance.

Lean on your external network—this is often an action leaders do not take. Connect with outside organizations to help women on your team in working through their development goals. Remember, skills gaps are unique to the person, their role and their future career objectives. Assist your female team members in identifying all of those elements and then determine how together, you can source resources and support to help them advance.

4 – Find Female Mentees to Support

Sometimes, a role model is all that’s needed when it comes to inspiring an aspiring female leader. I have had many sponsors and attribute their support to helping me continue to be a high achiever. However, I didn’t always lean on my direct managers to help me find my “personal board” as I like to call it. I personally sought out this support network and was vocal when it came to my career aspirations. Of course, even though I’m beyond grateful for all of the ongoing support, I always made sure my work spoke for itself while leaning on my mentors and personal board members to help me grow as a leader.

This is why I say you can help your teammates design their career map and serve as a supportive partner, but it’s up to them to own it while you help pave the way. In this vain, you can also serve as a mentor—mentors and mentees can proactively communicate to identify the opportunity to connect, where sponsors tend to naturally find one another through shared experiences.

5 – Help Your Team Find Mentors and Sponsors

Let your teammates know that it’s ok to ask someone to be their mentor!

It’s OK for you as a team leader to serve as an agent to help connect your team members to others that may be a good fit in offering support towards their development goals. It’s so important for women to have mentors and sponsors so they have someone to relate to and an unbiased sounding board to assist in their overall development while navigating obstacles and other workplace challenges.

For example, have you ever had an idea but weren’t sure if it’s a) good and b) ready to socialize with your leader? An open-door policy between mentors and mentees can be crucial to not only vet such ideas but give women the chance to be coached and guided to help build confidence in their voice. Mentorships are all about empowering mentees while delivering constructive feedback, and in some cases, an added benefit can be a mentee supporting a mentor with a challenge.

Sponsors tend to be less of a formal relationship that is developed organically over time. Leaders tend to sponsor individuals that have likely worked for or alongside them at one time or another. Sponsors can serve as a person who endorses someone for a role or serves as an advocate on someone’s behalf. There are less formal check ins and counseling when it comes to sponsorship as it is more of a role of endorsement for the individual being supported. A sponsor can also serve as the person that is called when impromptu advice or perspective is needed.

6 – Lead with Empathy and by EXAMPLE!

Make it known that you support their identities both in and out of the office as caretakers, mothers, partners and more. More importantly, make sure it’s understood that one identity does not need to be sacrificed to make space for another. This show of support can go a long way.

That kind of empathy and support also elevates two-way communication. Those on your team who understand this level of trust exists, may tend to be highly engaged and do their best work. As a leader, it’s important to ensure those that are doing things well are amplified and recognized. Recognition can do wonders for engagement as we must remember, an engaged team is a productive team. Develop people and give them the proper kudos they deserve as individuals and as teammates.

Just as a teacher would support a student in their classroom, preparing them for the next grade level or course, leaders at organizations have the opportunity to support women in the workplace with the tools and skills they need to position them for future growth and advancement. Be open to serving as a critical resource in their development. Be open to helping move the needle for women. Be open to speaking up and recommending individuals for roles as they become vacant or available. Leaders have the opportunity to amplify their teammates voices and skills—and be the fuel for change. How are you using your voice to help lift and support women in your organization?

About Elise Awwad

Chief Operating Officer, DeVry University

Elise Awwad is the Chief Operating Officer of DeVry University. She has oversight of all student operations to ensure a positive and consistent experience for DeVry students and corporate partners.

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